When I first saw There’s Something About Mary, I swung between howling with laughter and muttering, “I can’t believe I’m laughing at this.” Despite its sophomoric humor, some of the comedy slayed me (odd things, like when Cameron Diaz’ character can’t pronounce Brett Favre’s name, had me in stitches long after the movie ended). It elevated itself to the forefront of a new sensibility in popular comedies.
Similarly, I guiltily guffawed my way through Bringing Down the House. I left the theater, though, feeling bereft at the amount of stereotyping that was used to extract that laughter.
Chat Room Reality
The premise is a predictable one: Wonder-Bread white, divorced tax lawyer Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) meets “lawyergirl” in a chat room. Lalo Schifrin’s sprightly, comforting 1980s style score backs their e-mail exchanges. After some mutual misrepresentation (he’s a “criminal lawyer” with “boyishly light” hair; she has an “athletic body” and sends him a photo of a cute, blond lawyer), the two decide to go on a date. He opens the door. “But you’re not blonde!” he sputters, to which Queen Latifah replies, “Yeah, I get that a lot.” (Turns out she was in the background of the cute blond photo, being stuffed into the back of a patrol car.)
Enter Charlene, fresh out of prison and looking for help proving that she is innocent of the crime for which she has just served four years. Peter tries to shoo her away, but she storms right back into his life and eventually helps him loosen up in a predictable tale of Poor Rich Guy Redeemed by Soulful Black Woman.
Racism in the House
Racism is one of the pillars the comedy rests on. In an early scene, Peter’s neighbor, Mrs. Kline (Betty White), emerges from her mansion to ask if he saw the “Latins” in the neighborhood. He says that, yes, they were looking at a house down the block. “Casing it?” asks Mrs. Kline. “No, they were interested in buying it.” She says, “If they’re on this block and not carrying a leafblower…” A cry of outrage and smattering of shocked laughter from the audience drowned out the rest of the line.
Were we supposed to take this sense of humor at face value? Or was it ironic tongue-in-cheekiness on writer Jason Filardi and/or director Adam Shankman’s part?
This exchange set the tone for much of the rest of the movie. The comedy constantly goes out of bounds, as when Mrs. Arness describes her former household servant: “Our Ivy… We used to pay her nothing. We would put all the food we hadn’t eaten from our plates onto one plate just for Ivy.” Queen Latifah rises to the occasion with verbal and physical sparring in every scene. She’s in an over-the-top knock-down, drag-out catfight with the charming Aunt Ashley (Missy Pyle), another character whose mouth can’t open without meanness spilling out.
Antics and Laughs
But by the end, the audience howled along with Steve Martin, as white as ever, trying to speak Homie, and with Queen Latifah, as black as she could be, shakin’ her booty and Yass, Massa-ing to Martin and his stuffy billionaire client, Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright, cast to type).
The antics and comic timing of Latifah, Martin, and Levy provide plenty of laughs, even when their words aren’t making you wince. Some people will enjoy the silly situations: Steve Martin primps for his date, tries to talk dirty (“I want to give you an … aromatherapy massage,”), and transforms himself into a homie who busts his jerky moves in a dance-off in the gangstas’ bar. Eugene Levy moons and swoons over Queen Latifah, who shucks and jives and shows everyone who’s really in charge.
That Ain’t Right
When the lights came up I couldn’t forgive this goofy gagfest all the slurs. Anybody who is raking in the bucks calling people Fag and referring to Negro as a language, as in, “I thought I heard Negro!” is profiting from talking trash, which my mother always told me was wrong.
Bringing Down the House is also a lazy piece of work. Every one of the main characters comes down to a stereotype: Peter is an uptight white lawyer; his colleague Howie has a yen for “Jello that jiggles” in the form of buxom, black Charlene, who just got out of jail; Peter’s ex-wife is bitter; and Peter’s potential client is a stuffy, aging Brit. The film’s predictable storyline doesn’t add depth: what Peter really wants is not Charlene, but to get back together with his ex-wife and family, which, being a rich white guy in a Hollywood movie, he is assured of.
Equal Opportunity Offender
Bringing Down the House is writer Jason Filardi’s first big sale. I can only imagine he pitched it based on its equal-opportunity offensiveness: his screenplay leaves no one untouched in poking its fun. Yet ultimately it deepens rifts by allowing its characters to remain caricatures. In trying to trespass boundaries for shock and comedy value, Bringing Down the House fails to break any new ground, only managing to capitalize on tired, old notions of the differences between people.
After the lights came up, I felt like everyone who collaborated in making this movie was working just a little too hard to tell us that it was fine for them to be pairing “Latins” with leafblowers. I remain unconvinced.