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BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE

The Virtue of Jiviness

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First impulse: Swat Bringing Down the House for taking potshots at prejudice while ultimately buying into black/white polarity. Second impulse: Praise Bringing Down the House for its clever dissection of prejudice, and for the courage to turn the klieg light of comedy on a black/white divide lots of people don't want to admit exists, let alone talk about.

Either seems a big burden to pile on a comedy, especially one as watchable as this. But comedies are just as good as dramas at conveying information about the world -- maybe even better, because people aren't expecting any kind of tart message inside the sweet candy coating.

What's more, the film is practically asking for it, what with drop-kicking a swaggering black female convicted felon -- Charlene, played by actress and rapper Queen Latifah -- into the neighborhood, house and life of a rich uptight white tax lawyer, named Peter and played by über-WASP Steve Martin.

Expectations for such setups are simple. The person of color will teach the pale person to loosen up (Peter is unpopular with his ex-wife and kids), and will in turn benefit from her sojourn in the Valley of Whiteness (Charlene, claiming a frame-up, wants her armed-robbery conviction expunged).

The surprise is how close Bringing Down The House comes to making the formula both funny and worthwhile. At its best, it's a comedy of mistaken appearances. Charlene first materializes to Peter in the form of disembodied Internet chat-room text. When she sends a picture, he misreads it, taking the petite blonde in the foreground for Charlene rather than the hefty, shackled prisoner in the background (whom he doesn't even notice). After Charlene invades his home (there goes the neighborhood!), he points at the tackily dressed black woman in his living room and tells his privileged suburban offspring, "This is no one."

In a drama, a character who said that would be a villain; in a comedy, Peter is just early in the plot. Likewise, bold Charlene can confront us with insights that in a "serious" movie would go down like month-old peanut butter. To pass as someone Peter knows Charlene must assume a series of roles. She can be a sho-nuffin' nanny, or a gospel-humming church lady, grateful recipient of his pro bono beneficence. What she can't be, in Peter's melanin-free world, is a smart black woman trying to get out of trouble. Watch closely: Just as Chaplin's best comedy conveys messages about poverty from someone who knew whereof he pantomimed, so does Queen Latifah's incandescent scorn tell what it's like having to go through life denying who you are to people who already see you as less than nothing.

Director Adam Shankman and crew should be commended for these bright spots, for casting a woman of size as a capable and even sexy lead, and for the fact that the picture is well paced and consistently diverting. For this we might even forgive him that the big breakthrough in Charlene and Peter's relationship occurs when she teaches him how to dance funky (though Martin's funk explicitly reprises his wild-and-crazy Saturday Night Live swinger). We can probably even overlook that Charlene is so thoroughly idealized, a woman who's both sensitive and superheroine-tough.

What's a little harder to digest is that while Charlene is committed to fixing her life, she's also oddly dedicated to validating the lives of rich white people. And so, despite its trenchant moments, is Bringing Down the House. It's not so much that the film draws some of its biggest laughs from having square old white guys -- like Peter's pal, Howie (Eugene Levy) -- talk and act "black"; no, that's quite pleasingly def. But note the film's heavies. One is Peter's neighbor (played with gleeful condescension by Betty White), and the other is his aged-heiress client (Joan Plowright). Both are blatant racists, White virulent and Plowright dotty. Both conveniently also distract us from observing that the characters with whom we're supposed to sympathize also don't have much to do with black people, at least until Charlene is thrust upon them. Though they don't seem all that bothered by this state of affairs, they also look enlightened by comparison to the two bigoted older women (in politics this is called "triangulation").

So the country-club tribesmen come off OK in the end; with help from Charlene, they even save the day. Actually, they have to, since the film's good will doesn't extend so much to black men. In the age of Oprah (to whom Charlene gets compared), it's okay to have an assertive black female hero. But the only African-American man with more than a couple of lines is Charlene's boyfriend, who is a bad dude indeed. Still, Bringing Down the House doesn't so much demonize black men as make them absent, the more smoothly to consummate its little cross-cultural fairy tale. * * 1/2

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