Touchstone Pictures // 2003 // 105 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 21st, 2012
"Mr. Sanderson! Is everything okay? I thought I heard Negro!"
Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin, Bowfinger) is a successful tax attorney on the verge of bringing a wealthy new client (Joan Plowright, Dennis the Menace) to his firm. Though the potential deal occupies most of his time, Peter also occasionally frequents a legal-themed chat room where he engages in stimulating conversation with a mysterious woman known only as "lawyer girl." Based on what little information "lawyer girl" has given him, Peter believes his internet gal pal to be a skinny young blonde. However, when he finally gets around to arranging a date with her, he's shocked to discover that "lawyer girl" is actually a stocky African-American woman (Queen Latifah, Last Holiday).
The girl's real name is Charlene Morton, and she's eager to get Peter to help her out with a difficult legal situation. Peter initially resists the idea, but Charlene's persistence eventually pays off. Over the course of their time together, Charlene and Peter teach each other a few things about the eccentricities of their respective cultures.
Despite the many significant steps of progress which have been made in the Post-Civil Rights era, it is an undeniable fact that racism still exists in America. I've witnessed it firsthand in my own hometown, and odds are that you have, too. However, racism has also changed a great deal in the modern era; often revealing itself in much subtler ways. Don't try telling that to Adam Shankman's Bringing Down the House, though: here is a 2003 comedy which imagines that the world still behaves as if it's 1953.
In Bringing Down the House, Shankman (along with screenwriter Jason Filardi) has envisioned a world in which a white man hanging out with a black woman qualifies as shocking to the average citizen. When Martin and Latifah visit the country club, the white members raise their eyebrows and whisper to each other as if Martin had just walked in with a naked Martian. When a rumor is spread that Martin and Latifah have been sleeping together (even though they haven't), Martin is approached by other members of the law firm: "Now your personal life is none of our business Peter, but if this gets out, it could affect the firm." Yes, because so many 21st Century business professionals refuse to do business with a white man in a relationship with a black woman.
Okay, so the movie bears no relation to the real world, but that's true of many comedies. Is the movie funny? Sadly, the answer is usually a resounding "no," unless you're the sort of person who eagerly laughs in appreciation at hacky, "white people do things like this, but black people do things like this!" routines. Of course there's such a thing a thing as smart, observant culture-clash humor, but there's none of that to be found in Bringing Down the House. Peter is a stereotypically anal-retentive white guy and Charlene is a stereotypically sassy black woman. The racially-charged humor is neither observant nor entertaining; simply a series of one-dimensional characters throwing stupid insults at each other. As evidence, I present the following conversation which takes place between Charlene and a snooty white woman named Ashley:
Ashley: What is she doing here?
Charlene: Oh, get used to it, twiggy; you're gonna be seeing a lot more of me around here!
Ashley: Not without a broom in your hand!
Charlene: If I have a broom, it's only 'cause I'm here to sweep up the white trash!
Ashley: Save it for the Y.M.C.A., Jemimah.
Charlene: Bitch! I will kick the bulimia outta yo' ass!
Gracious, this stuff makes The Help look subtle (a film this one foreshadows in an extended scene in which an angry Latifah -- who is pretending to a maid, for contrived reasons -- fills Peter's food with a fast-acting laxative).
What really hurts is that the two central actors are wasted in such excruciating fashion. Martin and Latifah, despite the mind-boggling fact that they have different skin colors and are appearing in the same movie together, actually have quite a lot in common. They're both fine actors who can switch with ease between comedy and drama, they're both talented musicians on the side, they're both authors of multiple books -- these two can do pretty much anything they set their mind to, and yet here they are in this dreck. The film suffocates the two actors, and if you think covering Steve Martin with bling and asking him to act like a hard-partying black teenager is a wise use of Martin's comedic gifts, you're sorely mistaken. Frequently, the film leans on Eugene "I'll appear in anything for the right price" Levy for cheap laughs, asking Levy to deliver lines like, "You got me straight trippin', boo!" in that distinctively square, Eugene Levy-ish way.
Though there are countless additional factors I could tackle (for instance, how many movies must we endure in which a character's self-absorbed workaholism is demonstrated by the fact that he answers his cell phone in the middle of a conversation with someone else?), let me point out one final bewildering flaw: despite the fact that Martin and Latifah clearly demonstrate fine chemistry together (one of the film's sole virtues) and the characters are clearly attracted to each other, the film doesn't see fit to pair them up romantically. No, instead it insists on placing Martin with his ex-wife (Jean Smart, who has so little screen time that she barely registers as a character) and placing Latifah with the irrepressibly lame Levy. Say what? It might have been an impressively convention-defying move if handled properly, but there's no legitimate reason for the main characters to wind up in the arms of the people they wind up with by the film's conclusion. The only reason this isn't more frustrating is that we've long since stopped caring about everyone in the movie by the time these developments roll around (though I may be alone in that statement, considering that Bringing Down the House is one of the most financially successful comedies ever made).
Bringing Down the House (Blu-ray) delivers a perfectly serviceable 1080/2.40:1 transfer which does a decent job of recapturing the film's bland rom-com palette. Detail is stellar throughout, flesh tones are warm and natural and blacks are reasonably deep. There's nothing which really pops or dazzles, but this disc gets the job done. The same applies to the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which delivers the film's soundtrack (highlighted by a flavorful, appealing score courtesy of an overqualified Lalo Schifrin) with clarity. Only the party sequences offer a sense of room-rattling immersiveness, but it's a decent track. Supplements are ported over from the DVD release: a commentary with the writer and director, a pair of featurettes ("Breaking Down Bringing Down the House" and "The Godfather of Hop"), some deleted scenes, a Queen Latifah music video and a gag reel.
An unhappy entry on the IMDb pages of everyone involved. Skip this ugly, obvious, preposterous flick.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video
* Gag Reel