Film Review Archive

 

Bringing Down the House
Reviewed by Carla Freccero


Now playing at movie theaters everywhere, and topping the box office, Bringing Down the House is directed by Adam Shankman (who also did The Wedding Planner). The leads in this slapstick comedy about race are Steve Martin as Peter Sanderson and Queen Latifah as Charlene Morton.

Now, I warn you, I really dislike the genre of comedy that has Steve Martin in it, and this is exactly that kind of movie, except for the fact that it's about race and that Queen Latifah both acts in it and co-produced it. I will see anything with Queen Latifah in it, and it's always worth it to try to understand how America's coping these days with one of its favorite obsessions.

Clearly, it's not. Black people, according to this movie, rob banks, are tough gangsters, like to party, love to dance, speak an exotic vernacular and are cool. Black women are on this earth to facilitate and manage the emotional lives of awkward and harried white men (they are also there to cook, sew, and take care of the kids). White women and Black women hate each other because they are both competing for the white man's attention.

Now, you ask me-why should you bother? Well, you probably shouldn't, except that there really are several fine actors in this film, in addition to Martin and Queen Latifah. Joan Plowright plays a wealthy and bigoted client of Sanderson's tax law firm; Eugene Levy plays Sanderson's co-worker and buddy, while Jean Smart plays his ex. Steve Harris from The Practice plays Widow, Queen Latifah's ex.

Some of the humor is pretty good too. But what's best about the movie, what is clearly its driving force, and why they had to cast Queen Latifah, is its enchantment with language. The set-up for this is predictably obnoxious: earthy Charlene teaches white uptight tax lawyer Peter how to get by in the vernacular. His co-worker however-because Jewish apparently-both relishes the racial difference (he's got jungle fever) and somehow magically speaks the language, albeit with his own odd and awkward inflections. But the dialogue, repartee, the words and phrases themselves, are great, and Queen Latifah's gorgeous voice and perfect timing make language come alive and sing. My favorite part is where she imitates white talk, what gets called standard English, showing off for her audience just how versatile a range she commands.

Oh by the way, the story is this: Charlene is wrongly convicted of armed robbery and breaks out of prison. Having conducted an online courtship with Peter Sanderson, who is currently estranged from his wife, she shows up at his house ostensibly for a date but actually to get help on her case. He is, of course, one of those mild-mannered white bigots and tries to get rid of her before his more virulently racist neighbors notice what's going on. As the plot unfolds, he learns with her help how to place family values above work, win back his wife, have fun, and how not to be a racist. Charlene meanwhile learns how not to make foolish mistakes like choosing the wrong man. She also gets the material help she needs, which is probably the movie's ultimate message: what women, white or Black, need from men, is money and means. But only good women deserve it. To the movie's credit, the white family does not transform Charlene; rather, she already understands all their foolish mistakes and racist stumbling. Nothing surprises her and she emerges intact, unscathed, and true. But then again, that's a stereotype too.

Bringing Down the House is yet another movie about white people using Black people in their desperate attempts to acquire authenticity. Further, in forging one particular interracial alliance, the film must destroy others, including those of race and gender. The connections between Black women and Black men, and the connections between Black women and white women must be trashed in order for white men and Black women to emerge as models of interracial harmony. And perhaps in subtle-too subtle-self-criticism, the movie suggests that this is the way it has to be for white men ever to appear heroic.

Is this a comedy? If you think about it, and about the popularity of this film, it kind of makes you want to cry. What were they thinking?

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.