There's nothing subtle about Tyler Perry and his black-centric movies. The farce is in-your-face, the melodrama has more soap than a Laundromat, and the messages - drugs are bad, school is good, single moms are the heroes of our time - come mounted on billboards.
But that said, the playwright, actor, director and drag queen (yes, his bewigged and be wild Madea makes a brief and totally gratuitous appearance in his new film) knows how to give human dimension, and a dimension of humor, to the cliches and stereotypes.
In Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns, Angela Bassett is Brenda, a single mother struggling to raise three kids in the Chicago projects. But even with a job, Brenda owes money - to the kindly old woman running the day care, to the not-so-kind electric company. Some days Brenda goes hungry so her two girls and high school basketball star son get to eat. Bipolar sex-bomb Latina friend Cheryl (Sofia Vergara - comic relief with cleavage) lends emotional support, but pretty much Brenda is on her own.
And then she loses her job. And then a letter arrives with bus tickets to a funeral: It's her father's, a man she never knew, in a backwoods Georgia town. And so Brenda and her kids head for the sticks to meet the not-so-bereaved family Brown, engage in dinner table discourse, city-versus-country culture clash, experience madcap moments at the church and cemetery, and watch some over-the-top comic antics from Jenifer Lewis (as the family drunk) and David Mann (as a Southern-fried fool with a retro wardrobe).
Throw in ex-NBA star Rick Fox and his cheekbones as Harry - a basketball coach who sees promising things for Brenda's boy, and sees promise in Brenda, too. And if Frankie Faison, as one of the saner of the Browns, seems out of place to fans of The Wire (he was Police Commissioner Burrell), Perry throws in Wire-ish corner drug dealin' back in Chicago, too.
Perry's feel-good flicks about the African American experience look as if they cost nothing to make, and there's no sign that the one-man movie studio is thinking about retirement. His four previous pics have grossed more than $200 million, his DVDs, House of Payne TV series and plays (Meet the Browns was one) bring in the bucks, and he's got at least two projects in the works. It'd be nice if he took more time to think about lighting and staging a scene - but hey, he really doesn't have to.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.