Race has been the subject of many movies over the years, but rarely has it been dealt with so confusingly as in Bringing Down the House, a Disney-produced comedy directed by Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember). Given its production pedigree, I expected the movie to be light, innocuous fun. It was surprising, then, that I felt so uncomfortable at the film. Even after it was over, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Steve Martin stars as Peter Sanderson, a tax lawyer at a big-time firm. Sanderson is divorced, but still pines for the ex-wife (Jean Smart) who left him due to his preoccupation with work. He also has two children who are tired of the broken promises he offers. Sanderson tries to pick up the pieces by flirting with someone known as “Lawyer-girl” in an AOL chatroom. He believes she is a thin, white attorney, and is shocked when the woman who shows up at his door is an ex-con named Charlene (Queen Latifah). Sanderson wants nothing to do with Charlene, but she essentially blackmails him into helping her prove her innocence. In return, she offers to help him win back his ex-wife.
While this is going on, Sanderson is also trying to land a big case. He must convince an elderly - and very particular - client named Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright) to let his firm handle her money. Arness is extremely picky about her lawyers, fearing that someone young, irresponsible, or immoral will end up screwing her. Sanderson therefore doesn’t want her to cross paths with the loud, brash Charlene.
This is not going to be a review about plot or style or any of the other things I usually talk about. It doesn’t matter if the story is predictable, or if it offers any originality to its odd-couple formula. What I want to discuss is the movie’s tone, because that’s what I can’t figure out. Bringing Down the House obviously employs broad racial stereotypes as a way to get laughs. All the black characters are “homies,” whereas all the white people are uptight and square. The lone exception is Sanderson’s partner Howie (Eugene Levy) who thinks Charlene is the hottest woman he’s ever seen. Exaggerating racial stereotypes for laughs can be dicey, but it can also work, as the great, groundbreaking TV show “In Living Color” proved for many seasons.
The problem for me is that I could never decide whether Bringing Down the House was satirizing racial stereotypes or perpetuating them. Consider the fact that most of the white people in the film act like they’ve never seen an African-American before. There are many scenes in which Sanderson panics over the prospect that Arness, his boss, or the little old lady across the street will see him with Charlene. When Mrs. Arness does cross Charlene’s path, Sanderson passes her off first as the nanny, then later as the maid. And the movie seriously implies that Arness would fire Sanderson if she thought Charlene was anything other than the “help.”
I was troubled too by the aforementioned elderly neighbor (played by Betty White). She’s a bigot, telling Sanderson’s young son that he looks “like a fag” in his argyle sweater. Later, she becomes concerned when she thinks that she “hears a Negro” speaking in Sanderson’s yard. In another scene, Sanderson and his kids literally sneak Charlene into the house to avoid her being seen by the woman, who incidentally is the sister of Sanderson’s boss. The suggestion is made several times that she might tell her brother about Charlene, who would then fire Sanderson for cavorting with an African-American.
I am certain that people like Steve Martin, Eugene Levy, Queen Latifah, and Betty White would never intentionally make a movie with racist overtones. However, Bringing Down the House never really draws any satiric conclusions from its observations of prejudice. Yes, the neighbor lady is a bigot, but what is the purpose – to point out the small-minded ignorance of bigots? Or to milk laughs by having a little old lady use words like “fag” and “Negro”? The movie never really hits any apparent target with its comedy, and at times I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not. For a while, I thought perhaps I was watching a comedic version of Far From Heaven, which used racial/sexual attitudes of the past to illustrate their shallowness. But I didn’t feel uncomfortable watching Far From Heaven; I knew what it was doing. Bringing Down the House left me unsure of its own feelings on racism because its approach to the material is so unfocused.
When it’s not depicting prejudice, the movie often relies on having white characters adopting hip-hop attitudes. Sanderson, at one point, puts on baggy pants, knit cap, and a bunch of bling-bling jewelry and enters a nightclub spouting hip-hop cliches. It’s funny because Martin looks so much out of his element, but why must the character act so stereotypically? Does he believe all African-Americans talk in that rap lingo? Mrs. Arness gets a big punchline by saying the expression “fo sheezy.” So does her willingness to use this term mean she no longer harbors prejudicial views? Again, the screenplay never clues us in on whether it’s appalled by bigotry or amused by the idea of white people acting “black”. This lack of clarity or comedic purpose robs the movie of some laughs.
That said, there are moments in the film that are quite funny. Steve Martin – a true genius – is as clever and amusing as always. The sheer physicality he brings to a role is often enough to get me to laugh. Queen Latifah and Eugene Levy are funny and likable as well. There were definitely times when the movie made me giggle.
I just can’t get past the confusing approach the film takes, though. There’s a good satire to be made about the clash between hip-hop culture and white suburbia. Statistics show that the largest consumers of gangsta rap are, in fact, white suburban kids. And that drives some parents crazy. You could make a really bright, funny movie about the melding of white and black culture – especially if you come to the realistic conclusion that anything that brings the races together is ultimately a good thing. Bringing Down the House, I think, wants to send that message, but I’m not sure it does. The last scene really only makes it seem like Peter Sanderson and his white friends have realized it’s okay to be friends with a black person. In 2003, that’s not enough.
( 1/2 out of four)
Bringing Down the House is rated PG-13 for language, sexual humor and drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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