Tyler Perry’s fifth big screen effort and fourth adaptation from one of his stage plays, Meet the Browns, opened Friday. We didn’t comment on it when the trailer debuted—and that was intentional. I’ll explain why in a minute.
First, I have a confession to make: Not counting Meet the Browns, I’ve seen every Tyler Perry film at least twice. That’s right. Four Tyler Perry films. Multiple viewings. Me. You read right. I wasn’t coerced, either. I saw them of my own volition — though, admittedly, none of the viewings were alone. For me, watching a Tyler Perry film is a community exercise. It’s a social pastime. It gives me occasion to exaggeratedly gasp and cover my mouth as someone gets choked at a dinner table or clap and rock in my seat when Idris Elba stomps the drug man with “A Change is Gonna Come” as the score. And at any given moment, I can glance to the left or right and catch my mother or grandmother doing the same.
I enjoy watching Tyler Perry films. I ignore Madea and roll my eyes really hard at the speeches the male love interests deliver to the leading ladies. I loudly complain about Shemar Moore’s bad cornrow wig or Boris Kodjoe’s bad acting. I admire Kimberly Elise’s ability to turn pablum into profundity. I crack wise about the overwrought score in every.single.flick.
But when the trailer for Meet the Browns surfaced a couple of months ago, I knew before the first fifteen seconds had passed that this would be the Tyler Perry film where I drew the line.
First off, Angela Bassett? I’ll pass. There’s something about mixing Oscar nominees with reeeally bad plotting and dialogue that heightens my irritation with what could otherwise be simple, saccharine marshmallow fluff. It’s one thing to put the self-made, New Orleans-bred underdog-of-a-mogul Perry in a dress as he spouts “Southern fried aphorisms,” takes on foster kids, hand delivers foil-covered plates of food to crackheads, and helps family members exact revenge on abusive lovers—and then surround him with no-name underdogs just trying to make it in the entertainment game. It’s another to court serious, Ivy League drama school-educated actresses to help you sell your man-in-a-dress story again and again and again. With each successive turn, it just looks like Perry’s believing his own hype more and taking his ridiculously melodramatic scripts way too seriously. Rochelle Aytes? Lisa Arrindell Anderson? Cool. Those are solid actresses who are rarely offered feature film work—and who could really benefit from the paycheck. But Angela Bassett? Really, Tyler? She’s your new world-weary, man-wary, tight-jawed heroine whose shabby or stuffy wardrobe morphs to breezy, sleeveless sundresses as “love” arrives? Not only is that pretentious, but it’s also wasteful.
Then there’s Rick Fox as the love interest. And, having seen four Tyler Perry flicks before, I already know how this is gonna play out. Small-town dude, bummily dressed, traditionally hot, and golden of heart, wins over the unrealistically reluctant female lead with lines of wooing that wouldn’t have made it past the editing room floor on the symbolic assembly line that produces all the world’s formulaic dime-store novels.
Then, there’s the cadre of “colorful family members.” A weed-smoking neighbor, maybe? A loud-dressing brother with ashy knees? A big-mouthed high falutin’ cousin/mother/sister? A neck-rolling single mother? A God-fearing grandmother/matriarch/lay-preacher? Great.
For my money, all of the above are more than enough to fill an adequate, inappropriate-laugh-inducing Tyler Perry film. But the trailer for Meet the Browns lets you know straight off that, like most of its predecessors, this Tyler Perry Production has to reach for one more, deeply hidden nerve to knee-jerk. In Meet the Browns, it’s gonna be by way of Bassett’s teenage son. You know the type: tall, slender cat with a promising pro-ball career, derailed or delayed by his dalliances with drug-running (a vice he’s picked up for no other reason than to quell his mama’s ensuing money woes). Will ex-baller Rick Fox be able to save Bassett’s son from destruction and win her heart?
If you can’t guess, you probably shouldn’t be watching Tyler Perry flicks, anyway. These things are best enjoyed by folks who find them vaguely amusing—not when Madea or any of Perry’s other poorly-prostheticked alter-egos show up, but when Blair Underwood’s eyes go wild before he smacks his girlfriend or when the aforementioned Elise twitchily smokes as she contemplates letting her paralyzed, womanizing husband drown in a private whirlpool.
No one else could get away with plot points like these, handled with so little nuance or complexity that the ending is telegraphed before the opening credits finish rolling. And every once in a while, when a viewer wants nothing more than the temporal, fleeting amusement a film ticket buys, the fact that Tyler Perry films gross enough money to warrant continued release feels like a pretty good thing.
But now the dude’s just getting lazy. Salon published a Meet the Browns review with the subheading, “Is it a sin to wish Tyler Perry’s movies were better?” Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 27% Fresh rating, (which means it’s 73% Rotten), and even though reviewers generally revile Perry films (while slyly acknowledging their astonishment that the films continue to be box office Teflon), critics seem particularly disappointed with Meet the Browns. Maitland McDonagh of TV Guide says the film “may be [Perry's] most awkwardly plotted, cliché-ridden effort to date.” The Maryland Gazette’s Jeffrey Lyles laments, “[Meet the Browns is] a disappointing follow-up considering Perry seemed to be on the verge of challenging himself as a filmmaker* instead of settling into his old, more familiar niche.” Roger Moore of The Orlando Sentinel asserts, “Whatever progress the man was making, Browns is a Madea-sized big fat step backward.” It goes on. And on.
Meet the Browns opened second in its opening weekend—trailing the animated Horton Hears a Who, which had already been screening for a week. The film debuted at slightly over $20 mil (which seems to be the median for Perry’s films; Madea’s Family Reunion was the top opener at over $30 mil, Daddy’s Little Girls was the lowest opener at $11 mil. The other films opened at around $21 mil.), so we have yet to discover how much (or how little) successively poorer facsimiles of already-bad-films will slow the momentum of Perry’s rising star.
But when even word-of-mouth (on which Perry relies so heavily) can offer no greater endorsement than, “It was aiight,” we really do have to wonder.
* Lyles is referring to Browns‘ immediate predecessor, Why Did I Get Married?, this writer’s personal favorite of the Tyler Perry stable.