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Box Office Secret Weapon: A Black Dude in a Dress

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His name is Tyler Perry — that's him above in drag. He's a writer, director and actor. And if you've never heard of him, you better get busy. His plays, videos, books, TV shows and movies have made him a one-man industry. Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns came in at No. 2 at the box office over the weekend, behind the family flick Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who. Dr. Seuss took in $25 million on 4000 screens, while Dr. Perry grabbed $20 million on only half the number of screens. You do the math. Perry, 38, is kicking major ass.

Meet the Browns is the fifth time this African-Americn filmmaker from New Orleans has made the multiplex go ka-ching, starting in 2005 with Diary of a Mad Black Woman and following with Madea's Family Reunion, Daddy's Little Girls and Why Did I Get Married. Perry plays several characters, but is most famous for wearing a fatsuit, a white wig and loud floral patterns as Mabel "Madea" Simmons, a formidable woman based on his mother and his aunt. Madea (a southern contraction of the words "mother" and "dear") speaks her mind, sometimes with a rolling pin or even a gun. Perry, a victim of physical abuse from his father as a child, lets Madea rip on that subject. Movie critics, me included, haven't always been kind to the soapy theatrics Perry lays on his comedies. The humor is crude and the sentiment gooey. But there's a beating heart in his work, and it's all Perry's. Sure he's playing to a black audience, but he isn't pandering the way Hollywood does. Meet the Browns is far from Perry's best work — beginners are advised to go with Madea's Family Reunion — though Angela Basset gives a livewire performance as Brenda, a single mother of three who travels from Chicago to the Georgia funeral of the pimp daddy she never knew. Perry's Madea only shows up near the end. But those who've been avoiding Perry's movies, which are rarely screened in advance for critics, could do worse than Meet the BrownsDrillbit Taylor, for example, doesn't have an ounce of Perry's shoot-for-the-fences vigor. And the middling $10 million gross for the Owen Wilson kiddie farce on a whopping 3000 screens speaks volumes.

Other good news on the box-office front is the $2.6 million take for Under the Same Moon, the biggest opening ever for a Spanish language film in the U.S. Featuring Ugly Betty's America Ferrera, this tale of illegal Mexican immigrants shows that the Latino audience is eager to be served and that the issues Patricia Riggen's film raises strike a universal chord. It's a damn encourging to see this movie rake it in than watch 10,000 B.c. add another $9 million to unholy wallet. I keep hearing Steven Strait's surfer caveman asking a tiger to make him a promise: "Do not eat me when I set you free." This, my friends, is what totals up as a hit 2008 A.D.

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Peter Travers

Rolling Stone senior writer Peter Travers has reviewed movies for the magazine for more than 20 years. Send your comments and questions to him here.

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