In his quest to make the perfect movie for African-American church ladies, writer-director Tyler Perry is inching closer and closer to the mark. He's getting cannier in the casting department as well. "Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns" doesn't so much star Angela Bassett as adores Angela Bassett, partially because it knows we do, too.
Her character, Chicago single mom Brenda Brown, is at the end of her tether - she just lost her job, the electricity has been cut off, and her basketball star son Michael (Lance Gross) is hanging with the dealers - but the set of Bassett's jaw and her ungodly muscle tone signals the strength that'll pull Brenda through. Not that Perry hasn't written the actress more than enough despairing monologues, and not that she doesn't play each of them as if it's the big one.
A letter informs Brenda that the father she never knew has died on a far-off planet called Georgia, and after some dithering, she packs son and two daughters (Chloe Bailey and Mariana Tolbert) onto the bus to meet the family. Enter the Tyler Perry stock company, among them David Mann (from Perry's cable show "House of Payne") as the broadly clownish Leroy Brown, and Jenifer Lewis ("Madea's Family Reunion") as boozy, viper-tongued troublemaker Vera.
As less cartoonish cousins, Frankie Faison and Margaret Avery ("The Color Purple") act as ballast, but just when you think the movie's getting too serious - and too long - up pops Perry himself in full Madea tentwear, leading the cops on a high-speed pursuit. Why? Because the audience expects it, and a Perry movie is always about the audience.
Which isn't a bad thing, even if it tips the balance in the favor of blatant wish-fulfillment fantasy. In the opening Chicago scenes, Brenda's son catches the interest of a retired basketball pro (Rick Fox) who just happens to be a dreamboat and just happens to live in the cousin's small town. Fine, whatever: Fox and Bassett are so gorgeous together you don't really need dialogue. Perry provides it anyway.
The comic scenes mostly deliver, especially the ones involving the 5-by-5-sized Mann, who clearly will do anything for a laugh. (So will Sofia Vergara as Brenda's hoochie-coochie Latina friend; the difference is she's not very funny.) The dramatic scenes could have been skimmed off the top of any Oprah show. Perry wants to cram the entire agenda in: deadbeat dads, the temptations of drugs, the dangers of hoop dreams, country-folk solidarity, fear of a good man.
He has the will, but he still doesn't have the skill: In camerawork, editing, and story structure, "Meet the Browns" struggles to keep its head above average, and the naturalistic performances (Bassett, Fox, Gross) don't mesh with the outrageous ones (everyone else). Yet the women of Perry's army will come out feeling they've been well-served, and for the rest of us there's Bassett, getting her groove back after a spate of less than worthy roles. Perry's getting his groove, too - I give him two more films and an A-list cameraman.