Directed by: Adam Shankman
Starring: Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, Jean Smart
Bringing Down the House is not a good movie. It's not even an especially well-made one, which is something of a surprise, since whatever else might be said about director Adam Shankman's The Wedding Planner and A Walk to Remember, they were solidly crafted, professional films.
With rare exceptions -- a brilliantly shot and edited sequence of Steve Martin racing downstairs to stop Queen Latifah from ranting loudly about their "love child" in his front yard -- Bringing Down the House is as lazily sitcom-looking as anything I've seen in the wake of My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- and maybe more so. It's also become one hot potato in the subtext -- and even outright text -- department.
And, yes, there are some aspects of the film that are troubling in terms of political correctness, but I tend to think there's some serious overreacting going on here. Except for the fact that the language is a little more colorful, there's really nothing in the text of Bringing Down the House that you didn't encounter 30 years ago in any number of episodes of All in the Family. The point then (which, admittedly, was lost on a lot of people) was to make fun of racist attitudes and stereotypes. And that's also clearly the point here.
Critics who have latched onto such over-the-top moments as having Joan Plowright launch into singing a "spiritual" (apparently titled, "Is Massah Gonna Sell Me Tomorrow?") are missing the point that the whole idea is to make the character seem ridiculous. The subtext of the entire thing is much more disturbing in that it not only trots out all the usual white-people-are-only-cool-if they-learn-to-be black cliches, but the film's avoidance of a romance between Martin and Latifah transcends mere namby-pampiness and is just plain wrong.
Did no one even look at the dailies on this movie? If they had, surely they would have seen that the only sexual tension in the film is between the two stars -- certainly there's nothing going on between Martin and Jean Smart (as his ex-wife), and even less between Latifah and Eugene Levy. Yet the screenplay insists otherwise, presumably because to have Martin end up with Smart, and to have Latifah and Levy safely ensconced in a "comedic" pairing, runs no risk of offending "middle America." That may be true since Bringing Down the House upholds some kind of safe status quo, but it shoots the movie in the foot if for no other reason than because it's totally unbelievable -- and it makes the film a cinematic essay in pussyfooting.
What's incredibly galling about this is that the film is, in many capacities, often pretty daring in its scripting, yet chooses to play it safe where it really counts. Consider Martin's hysterical parody of Eminem -- never mind the fact that he acquires his outfit and his bling-blings in a manner most likely to get you beaten up, and forget that Gene Wilder did a similar routine back in 1976 in Silver Streak. (This is another matter entirely since Martin's character isn't trying to pass for black. Wilder was doing a standard thrill-comedy disguise that only poked fun at his own tight-assedness; Martin is satirizing a specific target and making fun of himself in the bargain).
But let's face facts: Most moviegoers are interested in only one thing with a movie like Bringing Down the House -- is it funny? The packed house I saw it with on Friday night found it funnier than I did (I lay the blame for this on the fact that most of them don't see 160 or so movies a year), but I did find a lot of it funny. I found a lot of it very funny -- and some of it even subversively so. Martin and Latifah are not only perfect in their respective roles, they have a true screen chemistry, despite the fact that the filmmakers chose to ignore it. Queen Latifah alone is worth the price of admission: The woman has enough screen presence for six movies. And there's no denying that hip-talking Eugene Levy is fun.
The film, however, misjudges a number of fairly long sequences. There's an especially brutal fight between Charlene (Latifah) and Ashley (Missi Pyle, Josie and the Pussycats) set to Robert Palmer's '80s hit "Simply Irresistible" that goes on forever and just isn't funny. Pyle, however, adds to other scenes in her capacity as Martin's gold-digging sister-in-law ("Ashley, who are you doing here?" he asks late in the film). Betty White is not particularly well served in a role that exists solely to have someone spout various bigoted remarks that come across as more mean-spirited than funny. But all in all, the film succeeds often enough as an entertaining comedy that I liked more than I didn't, so I can't come down too hard on it.