Brenda Brown is barely scraping by. Despite her best effort as a single mother of three living in Chicago's projects, she can't make ends meet. There's no money for day care. The pantry is bare. And then the power gets shut off. Her eldest, 17-year-old Michael, insists that they'll make it somehow. They always do, he says. But when Brenda's job gets outsourced to Mexico, she can't see how anything is going to work.
Brenda's desperate existence gets shaken up further when she receives word that her father, whom she's never met, has passed away in Georgia. Along with the letter are bus tickets for her family to travel south for the funeral and the reading of the will. At first, she resists the idea. Neither she nor her children need any more disappointment, she reasons. But at the encouragement of her feisty best friend, Cheryl, Brenda decides to head to a small town in Georgia to meet the family she's never known.
And what a family it is. "Pop" Brown has left behind three other children. L.B. and his wife, Sarah, are pretty down-to-earth. But Leroy Brown is as outlandish as the fire-engine red suit he wears when he and his daughter, Cora, pick up Brenda and her kids at the bus stop. And then there's the youngest, Vera, who's usually drinking (and drunk) and who spouts gossip and mean-spirited observations about pretty much everyone and everything. All in all, it's an eccentric but tightly knit and loving clan, one Brenda doesn't quite know what to do with.
Nor does she know what to do with a Brown family friend named Harry, a retired pro basketball player, coach and part-time recruiter. Harry has his eye on Michael, a prodigious young basketball talent whom Harry thinks has the right stuff for a pro career. Even more so, however, Harry has both eyes on Brenda—a beautiful single mother whose lifetime of disappointment makes it hard for her to trust anyone.
Slowly, Brenda's heart warms to Harry and the quirky Browns, and she learns how to receive a kind of love and acceptance she's always yearned for but never experienced. ... And then, suddenly, Tyler Perry's most famous character, Mabel "Madea" Simmons, shows up to cap off the movie.
For Brenda, success means adequately caring for her three kids—and keeping them off the street. It's an admirable goal that takes every ounce of her energy.
Michael responds well to her sacrifice. He loves his mother, he's obedient and he seeks to help her as much as he can with his two younger siblings (both girls, one in grade school, the other in preschool). He even offers to get a job, but Mom says he needs to concentrate on books and basketball.
Mom is also street-savvy enough to recognize the allure of illicit activities. When Michael's friend Calvin shows up with a new car, there's no question where it came from. Michael mostly avoids that world, but briefly flirts with dealing drugs in order to help Brenda make ends meet. Her tough-love response is unequivocal: "No child of mine is going to sell dope." She tells him he must leave the house, whereupon he apologizes and tells her he won't do it anymore.
Brenda receives encouragement from several female characters in the film. Among them is Cheryl, who is a strong advocate. She exhorts Brenda to seek child support from Michael's father, she forces a bus driver to wait while Brenda runs to the bus stop, she pushes Brenda toward going to Georgia to meet her family. Etcetera.
The Brown family is odd, to be sure. But (with the exception of Vera) they welcome Brenda with open arms, encourage her and generally treat her compassionately. Cora, for example, gives Brenda a stack of cash and says, "We just wanted to bless you with something." Likewise, Brenda's day-care provider, an elderly woman named Miss Mildred, recognizes that she's trying to keep her kids on the straight and narrow despite many setbacks.
For his part, Harry has an interest in helping Michael before he meets Brenda. And once he sees her, he's even more motivated. Harry is genuinely concerned about the family's welfare. He models great attitudes for Michael, asking, "Are you coachable? Do you listen?" He also pursues Michael while the youngster dabbles with drug dealing. Harry tells Michael that his own immersion in a life of gambling cost him his wife and three kids, and he urges Michael to make the smart decision.
Many characters in Meet the Browns talk about their Christian faith and God's provision. When Brenda says that somehow she's managed to keep providing for her children, Mildred tells her, "It ain't somehow, it's the Lord." Mildred then tells Brenda that she's close to a breakthrough and needs to keep praying. When Brenda replies that she does pray and tries to live right, Mildred responds, "Don't you ever get tired of doing the right thing. In the end it pays off."
When Michael is hospitalized late in the film, Brenda tells Harry that from the time he was born, she prayed, "Lord, protect my baby. Watch him for me." A doctor describes Michael's deliverance from a potentially life-threatening gunshot wound as "a miracle." Later we learn that the Brown clan was praying for him after the incident.
Similarly, both Cora and Sarah encourage Brenda spiritually, affirming that God will make a way for her and that she must keep on believing. That message is emphasized again at Pop's funeral when the pastor says, "God will see you through this."
Leroy says, "We need people who'll stand up and be heroes for the Lord." Both Leroy and Vera cry out to God in grief about losing their father. Characters also say such things as, "Help me, Jesus!" And a sticker on Leroy's windshield reads, "Live for God."
The Browns' church uses the proceeds from a fundraiser to refurbish the decrepit old rental house that Pop leaves for Brenda.
Harry and Brenda share a kiss. Brenda frequently wears tight, cleavage-baring tops. And her clothing choices are more modest than Cheryl's, whose chest is barely contained by several outfits. Cheerleaders at a high school basketball game wear short skirts and midriff-baring tops.
A crude conversation between Vera and Leroy revolves around an accident he had involving tight pants and a pocketed pencil. Glib references are made to "testicles" and a "gonorrheacologist."
Brenda's father was a pimp (before becoming a Christian) who had a penchant for sleeping with his favorite prostitutes (including Brenda's mother). And L.B. blasts everybody with the news that Pop's own mother was one of his "hos" (a word that's used repeatedly in this scene). We learn that Brenda's three children were each fathered by different men—something Brenda isn't proud of.
Brenda's ex shows up and says that he's decided to give her some money—in exchange for sex. He grabs her arm roughly as she rebuffs his aggression and his offer. When she says she doesn't have sex for money, he viciously responds that her mother did.
That foul ex says his obligation to his son was fulfilled when he gave Brenda $200 to get an abortion. When Brenda and Cheryl confront his unwillingness to fulfill his paternal duties, Cheryl throws a brick that knocks him down. In another scene, he and Brenda briefly tangle in anger.
Michael is shot in the back as he runs from drug dealers. One dealer also throws a wallop of a punch at another's face. In her cameo appearance, Madea savagely hits and kicks police officers who are trying to restrain her.
Cheryl threatens to burn down her former workplace after being laid off; she says she would have given a beating to her supervisor if she'd known what was coming the day before.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear about a dozen uses of "h---," and not quite that many uses of "d--n" and "a--." God's name is abused half-a-dozen times or so, and characters carelessly blurt out "Lord" about the same number of times. More than once, Brenda calls Michael's father a "b--tard." During a confrontation between his mother and father, Michael begins to say "mother------"), but doesn't finish.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Cheryl makes a joke about smoking a joint. After her job gets cut (along with Brenda's), we briefly see her puffing on one. Brenda advises her not to do this because Cheryl is bipolar, and Brenda fears the drug will exacerbate her "chemical imbalance." We see Calvin exchange cash for drugs in a couple of scenes. To give perspective, a "Drug Free School Zone" sign is prominently visible in one shot.
Vera has a glass of hard liquor in hand more often than not, and she repeatedly asks for rum cake. In several scenes, she's obviously drunk. When the pastor mentions God's comfort at Pop's funeral, Vera whispers, "There is comfort ... Southern Comfort." Brenda and Harry drink wine at a restaurant.
Other Negative Elements
Perhaps the most incongruous part of the storyline is Madea's brief appearance. In an O.J. Simpson-like scene, she and her brother Joe flee from a virtual fleet of police cars. It's unclear, exactly, what's going on, but Joe is hastily tossing baggies of something out the window as they try, unsuccessfully, to escape.
Vera is a meddling busybody and gossip who's critical of just about everyone and who also tries to sabotage Brenda's relationship with Harry. When they arrive in Georgia, one of Brenda's kids says, "We're gonna see slaves at any moment," and another says of Leroy's over-the-top antics, "It's Chicken George." Cheryl jokes about robbing a bank. Michael's drug dealer tells him he's betting on the outcome of a game in which Michael is playing.
Tyler Perry's films consistently focus on four things: 1) single parents struggling to do the right thing; 2) the importance of family and faith; 3) the bond between female friends in general and African-American women's tenacity amid hardship in particular; and 4) the fact that while there are a lot of deadbeat men out there, a few good ones are still around for the lucky women who can find them.
All of those themes are present here. And if you're familiar at all with Perry's previous work, nothing in this film will come as a surprise. In fact, it will all seem flatly familiar. This film's template is a virtual carbon copy of the one Perry used to make 2007's Daddy's Little Girls. Instead of a single dad with three girls, there's a single mom raising a young man and two girls.
Along the way, we get some terrific messages about faith, family, friendship and parenthood mixed up with off-the-wall humor, ridiculously silly characters and, of course—and unfortunately—some profanity and salacious conversations about sexually oriented things. Prostitution, especially, gets appropriated as the butt of jokes.
As with Perry's other films, then, I'm left feeling conflicted. More than almost any other money-making director I can think of, Perry treats faith and family with respect and honor. And those positive themes likely have a lot to do with the respectable box office numbers his films rake in—without much help from critics, I might add. So why do we need gags about how Daddy was a pimp or crude conversations about how Leroy gave himself a vasectomy? Probably because those are things that also put bodies in theater seats, and Tyler Perry knows it.