Mark Reviews Movies

BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE

1 Star (out of 4)

Director: Adam Shankman

Cast: Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, Jean Smart, Kimberly J. Brown, Angus T. Jones, Missi Pyle, Betty White

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language, sexual humor and drug material)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 3/7/03


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Review by Mark Dujsik

At some point during Bringing Down the House, I covered my face. I couldn't tell you at what part of the movie it was, either because I simply don't remember or because I don't want to remember. I haven't had that kind of reaction to a movie in a while, and I feel cheated to have such an involuntary defense mechanism triggered by a supposed comedy. The movie offends on two levels, the first for its invention of an odd social consciousness in which people dislike or mock another race because of preconceived notions and everyone in the movie fits a stereotype. I experienced a range of emotions regarding the movie on this level from sadness that someone believes this kind of racial stereotyping is acceptable to anger that someone believes this kind of racial stereotyping is funny. As if that weren't bad enough, the script by Jason Filardi (now on my short list of people who basically need to reinvent the wheel to get on my good side) encloses these attitudes within plot contrivances and conventions so lackadaisical that to call them sitcom-ish seems too much an understatement.

Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) is a divorced tax attorney married to his work. The firm he works for is trying to impress a new potential client, an heiress named Arness (Joan Plowright). Sanderson's idea: Take her personal tax work pro bono and hope the favor will lead Mrs. Arness to seriously consider the firm's handling of her multi-billion dollar corporation. It's a great opportunity for him, but it means that he has to cancel his plans with his children again. It's not surprising to his ex-wife Kate (Jean Smart), although Peter will still take the children while she heads off for the weekend with her new boyfriend. With his family difficulties and the added pressure of his new client, Peter is anticipating a date with a woman he met in an online law chat room, especially after receiving a picture from her. You can imagine his surprise when Charlene (Queen Latifah) appears at his door, far from the petite blonde in the foreground of the photo. It turns out, Charlene was in the background, being taken into a police car. She's an ex-convict looking for help to clear her name for an armed robbery she swears she didn't commit.

The movie exists in a world where the sight of a black woman at a country club can induce fear in every person present and an older white man can show up in a club, make an ass of himself by trying to "act black," and eventually gain respect from the club-goers. Everyone in this world is self-aware of their prejudices but no one tries to rise above them. Instead, they indulge in them, and so does the screenplay. All white people in this universe turn either, at the very least, uncomfortable or, at the most disgusting, incredibly vulgar at the sight of Charlene or the thought of someone like her. There's the neighbor Mrs. Kline (poor Betty White), Peter's boss' sister, who could cause major problems after she "heard Negro" coming from his house. There's a friend of Kate named Ashley (Missi Pyle), a despicable person who woes and seduces rich old men and gets into a random catfight with Charlene. Finally, there's Mrs. Arness herself, who stays fairly clean for the entire movie until a horribly embarrassing moment in which she unexpectedly stays for dinner at the Sanderson house. Of course, Peter has Charlene dress up like their servant, and the meal reminds Arness of her childhood and a song her own servant used to sing. I think this was the moment in which I covered my face.

Now while it seems that it is simply this trio of characters and scenes that show their true nature are the only perpetrators of insult, you have to understand that the screenplay plays on these stereotypes in the development of its characters. All of these characters are stereotypes themselves, which crosses the line between a movie that contains racist characters and one that displays—probably unintentional—racist tendencies. The movie's simple and misguided social observation is only magnified by its lazy plotting and comedy. The movie contains such gags as the aforementioned catfight, which comes out of nowhere and has the WASP doing Tae-Bo, and Eugene Levy being uncharacteristically unfunny as Peter's slang-talking partner. There's also the tried and true joke of mixing a laxative with someone's food. Wow, haven't seen that before. The main joke, though, is watching Peter try to hide Charlene or at least make her less obvious. Basically: We have a black woman in our house. Repeat that ad nauseam but replace the house with the country club or the office, and you have the fundamental conflict of the movie.

What's a shame is that Steve Martin and Queen Latifah are funny and obviously smart people, and the two of them have a few sweet and amusing scenes together. Why didn't the movie focus on their relationship instead of all this crap about rich heiresses and armed robberies and trying to get Martin and his wife back together? Bringing Down the House is wearisome and offensive, but I think it may hold the record for the most Important Emotional Moments interrupted by a phone ringing. Take that as you will.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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