I "get" Angela Bassett. But I'll be the first to admit that I don't understand what makes Tyler Perry popular. I just don't get the racial stereotypes and caricatures. In "Meet the Browns," Bassett throws herself into it as if she were doing something serious and important, like "A Raisin in the Sun." The rest of the cast, meanwhile, thinks they're doing "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." The better Bassett's performance gets, the more it underscores how this feels like two movies trying to be one. I know that Perry wrote, directed, and produced "Meet the Browns," but it still feels as if Perry bought the rights to a Lifetime made-for-TV drama and as an afterthought added the zaniest elements from his 2004 stage play.
One of the focal points of that play was a bombastic character named Madea, played dinner-theater over the top (like most of the characters) by Perry himself. Madea makes an appearance here too, with Perry also handling the role of Joe, but the film version mostly showcases Bassett and the fictional Browns (real-life spouses David and Tamela Mann). When the story follows Bassett's character--a single mom named Brenda Brown who lives in Chicago's projects--it feels serious and heartfelt. But despite Bassett's efforts to elevate the material, it also smacks of melodrama--a familiar story that heads straight for the emotions and thrives on stereotypes. Bassett adds soul and earnestness to her character, but that still doesn't keep Brenda from being a cliché. She's the typical good mom trying to make ends meet with different fathers for each of her three children, one of whom is a teenaged basketball star with drug-dealing friends. All you have to do is remember your Chekhov--If there's a gun in the story, either it's going to go off or not, and if it's not going to be fired, why is it in the story?--and you know there's going to be at least one crisis that's the result of those bad friends. But things are too hunky-dory in the Browns' world. Even after the crisis, we get a quick and total return to normal, as if nothing happened. Chicago is the violence capital of the world, lately, but the projects never looked so attractive. It's also the quickest undermining of a crisis that I've ever seen in a film. Another head-snapper is that Brenda looks and dresses awfully Marie Claire for a single mom who doesn't have the money to pay her electric bill. But none of it is enough to make you forget how familiar her character is, or how often we've seen the smooth-talking basketball recruiter (former L.A. Laker Rick Fox) who tries to ingratiate himself with Brenda in order to land to her talented son, Michael (Lance Gross).
Perhaps the biggest caricature comes with Brenda's best friend, a Latina named Cheryl (Sofia Vergara) who dresses like a hoochie and can't talk without unleashing a barrage of verbal attitude. Then there's the Browns. The over-the-top Browns. We get to meet them the same time that Brenda does: after her father dies, and her half-siblings send her bus tickets Georgia so she and her brood can attend the funeral. Why would she want to go, when she never even met her father? Well, her Latina friend suggests, maybe her father was loaded and she might get the money to solve all her problems here in Chicago. Then, in what's positively the worst bit of editing I've ever seen, suddenly Brenda and her children are getting off the bus in Georgia. Huh? It's almost like those old Warner Brothers cartoon jump cuts, where one minute Elmer Fudd grabs Bugs by the ears in the field, and then as he drops him the backdrop and scene changes suddenly so it's an interior and he's dropping the wascally wabbit into a big iron kettle. And what a stew these folks from Chicago have been dropped into.
The Brown siblings are a bunch of ill-mannered, borderline buffoons who bicker a lot and can't wait for the reading of the will so they can see what Daddy left them. Someone irritates you? Just push 'em on top of Daddy's grave at the funeral. There are some familiar faces here, like the always believable Margaret Avery ("The Color Purple"), along with Frankie Faison ("Coming to America") and the irrepressible Jenifer Lewis ("The Preacher's Wife"). If you isolate all of their performances, they're just fine. But put them all together, and it's too much to take, as so many family gatherings are. How Brenda gets the warm fuzzies around this clan is a mystery to me.
The romantic interest between Brenda and the basketball recruiter makes a lot more sense. Brenda is vulnerable, and here comes a nice guy who treats her kids the way their fathers won't. And he does things for her. It all gets pretty cheesy, but there's decent chemistry between Bassett and Fox, though his "soul patch" looks silly.
It all comes down to the disjunctive nature of this PG-13 film: the uncomfortable blending of drama with broad, slapstick humor. Some people are able to mix comedy and drama effectively. So far, I have yet to see it from Tyler Perry.
My Samsung doesn't register the codec and Lionsgate hasn't shared that information, so the transfer method is a mystery. I can tell you that the disc is a BD50, and that the 1080 picture looks bright and clear, with natural looking skintones and a pleasing level of contrasts. Black levels are strong, and edges are cleanly defined. I saw no noticeable artifacts, though I thought at one point, where are the artifacts when you need them? It seems like the disappointing films have the better pictures. "Meet the Browns" is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a very solid English DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio, which fills the room with sound in a surprisingly dynamic way for a film that's more dialogue than music or FX. The front-speaker spread is nice and wide, and all the channels are active in a way that seems natural. The bass is full-bodied but mellow, and the treble notes are bright without seeming shrill or harsh. There's also a Spanish 2.0 Dolby Stereo option, with subtitles in English and Spanish.
The extras are a bundle of short-short features that spotlight different members of the cast. To Perry's credit, he doesn't give himself a focus feature. "Meet the Manns" is an under 10-minute get-to-know feature on David and Tamela Mann, in which we see them in their home and learn about how they met, how deeply religious they are, and how they finish each others stories like old married. "Mr. Brown's Fashion Breakdown" is quick peek (just under 3 minutes) into the garish wardrobe closet, while "Angela and Rick: Meet the Lovebirds" splices together spotlights on Bassett and Fox, with no great surprises except Perry saying he's never worked with somebody as intense as Bassett, and Bassett revealing the respect she has for Fox's acting ability. That feature is just over 7 minutes, as is "Jennifer Lewis: Unleashed," who sits in front of the camera and ad libs half in-character and half out.
"Bakin' It and Shakin' It with Mr. Brown" is an under 7-minute cooking segment with Mann demonstrating a donut recipe, "The Music of Meet the Browns" is an under 6-minute blip about how Aaron Zigman uses instruments to reinforce the comedy and characters, and what you'd think would be the longest feature--"The Browns are Born: The Story of Meet the Browns"--is also just a blip on your screen at a little over 7 minutes. In it, Perry tells briefly how he decided he'd make the film. None of the features bowls you over, and collectively they feel like someone throwing them together so that there would be bonus features.
Disc 2 features a downloadable (PC, iPod, etc.) Digital Copy of the film in standard definition.
Tyler Perry fans will appreciate this, because it's probably the most accomplished of his films. But that's unfortunately not saying much for the king of direct-to-video. Some of the actors make this tolerable, but Perry's script and one-man supervision ultimately limits "Meet the Browns" to a strange combination of melodrama and dinner theater antics.