Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 6, 2003
Steve and Queen

Cultural cluelessness brings down Bringing Down the House.


For a movie that stars Steve Martin and Queen Latifah and is occasionally very funny, Bringing Down the House is surprisingly uncool. The reason for that certainly isn’t the two lead actors, who both get many laughs out of their material. Nor is it the meandering plot, which has Martin playing a boring tax attorney named Peter Sanders and Latifah playing an ex-convict named Charlene Morton who meets him online. It’s not even the direction by Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember), though he certainly doesn’t handle the story very well — the film huffs and puffs but never sustains its comic momentum.

No, what makes this comedy so painfully unhip is the fact that, with one hilarious exception we’ll get to later, all the white characters behave as if they’ve never seen a black person before. In the real world, an African-American woman dressed in hip-hop fashions doesn’t turn heads anymore when she walks into an exclusive country club (especially in L.A., where the movie’s set). In this movie, however, she does. This is a film that finds it hilarious when white guys in Brooks Brothers suits try to drop ghetto slang into their conversation. The brunt of the humor is borne by Peter’s racist neighbor (Betty White) and his rich client (Joan Plowright) who can’t see black people as anything but servants. What fun is it making targets out of these old women? Different films ranging from Clueless to Barbershop to 8 Mile have been both funny and smart about the various ways in which white people relate to African-American culture. In Bringing Down the House, black people and white people inhabit worlds that are completely separate. With its sensibility, it could have been made in 1983.

Charlene masquerades as a paralegal online because she’s looking for Peter’s help in reversing her armed robbery conviction. When the sassy soul sistah turns up in the flesh, she disrupts his routine life in a major way. Of course, she eventually straightens out Peter’s relationship with his two disaffected children, helps him woo back the ex-wife (Jean Smart) that he’s still in love with, and shows him the value of working less and enjoying life. (This is yet another Hollywood movie where the African-American solves the white guy’s personal problems. Well, at least Charlene doesn’t have magical powers.) Martin and Latifah both offer up creative line readings and bits of business, and they have a terribly funny scene where Charlene teaches Peter how to tap his inner alpha dog, and you can feel the two actors’ rowdy energy feeding off each other. Sadly, though, that’s the only scene where their comedic partnership truly comes to life.

As a result, they get upstaged by exactly the supporting actor you’d think would do it. As Peter’s colleague and best friend, the invaluable Eugene Levy marches off with yet another comedy tucked firmly under his arm. The character’s open lusting after Charlene gives a terrific new dimension to Levy’s so-square-he’s-hip persona, and as the only white guy in the movie who can say “You got me straight trippin’, boo” like he means it, he indicates the direction that a wiser, funnier movie would have taken. Word up, yo.

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