Bringing Down the House (review)

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Dumbing Down

I am a white person. I am passionless. I’m probably intolerant and likely harbor racist attitudes. I don’t know how to shake my booty. I wear khakis. What I need is a sassy black friend to invade my house and throw wild parties and teach me how to get down. You know, for my own personal enlightenment. Because guns and felonies add spice to life, breaking and entering is cool, and being some kind of freaky is what being real is all about.

It’s funny cuz it’s true.

Well, no, actually, it isn’t either funny or true. Bringing Down the House panders to preconceptions of race and culture — white people are uptight, black people are earthy — in such a way that, as innocently as it is probably offered, only reinforces those stereotypes, and it’s only amusing if you buy into these attitudes. It’s comedy that supposedly busts conventional ideas while relying on the audiences’ prejudices to make them laugh, and it in no way asks its audience to reconsider those prejudices, either. It just trots out racism unironically from all sides while pretending it’s enlightened.

But see, the fact that I don’t find Bringing Down the House uproarious just proves that I’m an uptight whitey.

*sigh* I won’t be able to win this one.

There’s a lot of romantic-comedy clichés at work here, in the relationship between Steve Martin’s (Novocaine, Bowfinger) uptight white lawyer Peter Sanderson and Queen Latifah’s (Chicago, Brown Sugar) sassy black convict Charlene Morton. Not that they’re ever offered to us a potential couple — that might have actually been funny, considering their usual joie de vivre and the spicy chemistry between them. No, she pursues him in a professional capacity — she, recently released from prison, wants him to help her clear her name: she didn’t do the crime, she claims. And her pursuit is, as with many a romantically comedically smitten male, downright criminal: the kind of home invasion, for just one example, in response to which any sane person would immediately call the police and get a restraining order. But of course, for all the many times Martin’s character threatens to dial 911, he cannot, because it would mean the end of the film. Relying on idiotic behavior in what is intended as a character-driven comedy is never a good plan. Neither is endowing them with apparent superpowers: not to spoil the meager plot for you, but Latifah’s character gets away with some stuff that would require magical abilities.

Director Adam Shankman — who has given us such un-sit-through-able masterpieces of cliché and unlikeliness as A Walk to Remember and The Wedding Planner — and screenwriter Jason Filardi fall back on such surefire laughmakers as foul-mouthed and appallingly racist old ladies, of which there are not one but two here: heiress Mrs. Arness, played by a rightly embarrassed Joan Plowright (Dinosaur, Tea with Mussolini), and nosy neighbor Mrs. Kline, played by an apparently oblivious Betty White (who did the same thing, practically, in Lake Placid). They also rely on the white guy who takes the “urban” thing too seriously: Eugene Levy’s (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) Howie Rosenthal, another lawyer who finds Charlene so luscious that he can barely contain himself. He’s played for laughs, too, the lesson being, I suppose, that whitey shouldn’t be too white, but for gawd’s sake, don’t try to be too black, either — a sassy mama like Charlene might help a guy loosen up a little, and that’s fine, but don’t take it too far, because no one white could ever hope to approach the coolness and sauciness of someone black.

Bah. Stereotypes are stereotypes, whether they’re negative — all black people must be servants, which is held up for ridicule here; all white people are racist — or positive — all black people must be fab-u-lous!; all white people can at least be taught. It’s still putting people in a box based solely on the color of their skin.

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