It’s amazing that in the first years of the twenty-first century a picture so filled with crude stereotypes as this one could be produced by a major Hollywood studio and probably garner laughs from undemanding mainstream audiences. In its own “modern” way, “Bringing Down the House” is no less offensive than something as ancient as “Birth of A Nation.” The racial roles are reversed here–it’s the African-Americans who are invariably smart and comfortable with themselves and the whites (at least all the adults ones) who are foolish, inept and servile–but the pattern of having one group regularly humiliated by the other is the same. Compared to Adam Shankman’s movie, even an effort as heavy-handed as Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) seems positively enlightened.
Given that “House” teams the wit of Steve Martin with the sass of Queen Latifah, the fact that the combination results in such a limp squib is sad indeed; Jason Filardi’s eye-poppingly awful script and Shankman’s lax direction insure that the odd couple pairing fizzles instead of sending off sparks. Martin plays Peter Sanderson, a stressed-out tax attorney separated from his wife Kate (Jean Smart) but still doting on his kids, teen Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown) and darling tyke Georgey (Angus T. Jones). Just at the moment that he’s trying to outmaneuvre smarmy office rival Todd Gendler (Michael Rosenbaum) in landing the account of rich dowager Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright), his home is invaded by Charlene Morton (Latifah), a jive-talking, take-no-prisoners ex-con who’s lured the stuffy lawyer into an internet date to get him to spearhead her appeal and prove that she was wrongly convicted of bank robbery. Sanderson resists, of course, but she proves far too canny and hip for him; besides, his office pal Howie (Eugene Levy) immediately gets the hots for her, and his kids quickly fall under her spell. There are further complications, some involving a horrendously bigoted neighbor (Betty White) who also happens to be the sister of Peter’s boss, some Sanderson’s shrewish, gold-digging sister-in-law Ashley (Missi Pyle), and still others Charlene’s old boyfriend Widow (Steve Harris). Needless to say, Peter and Charlene become friends as he takes up her case while she teaches him how to loosen up, live a little and reclaim his family.
Simplified like this, the picture might seem harmlessly stupid, but it’s not nearly so benign a bit of dumbness as that. It’s not that the spoofing of racial stereotyping can’t bear dividends: “Undercover Brother” walked the line between condescension and idiocy nicely only last year. But “Bringing Down the House” stumbles badly. Sanderson is such a clueless stick that even so adept a physical comedian as Martin can’t keep him from being anything but a hapless clown, and Latifah plays Charlene exactly as the caricature she is–the loud, abrasive but ultimately tender and unexpectedly intelligent Earth Mother who might cause all sorts of trouble but still takes time out to teach Georgey to read as well as Peter to dance. Levy does one-note shtick as Peter’s pal (though frankly it’s inconceivable that a guy like this–a sex-obsessed anti-WASP, who for some reason sends out a steady stream of street lingo in a droning monotone, would be employed in such a staid firm). But by far the most embarrassing turns come from Plowright, as a thoughtlessly prejudiced old broad who reminisces about her black childhood servants and dotes on an ugly dog but is immediately turned around by a couple puffs of marijuana; White, who’s forced to recycle her old Sue Ann Nivens character without the benefit of any funny lines (certainly her racial and homophobic slurs–this film tries to offend equally–don’t count); and Pyle, who has a fight scene with Latifah that’s bone-crunchingly terrible. (As for Rosenbaum, he’d be wise to stay in “Smallville.” He even looks better without the hair.) Visually the picture is glassy and overbright, the fault of mediocre production design and uninspired cinematography by Julio Mascat; Lalo Schifrin’s score is too bland to impress but too insistent to ignore.
In sum, despite all the comic talent involved, “Bringing Down the House” doesn’t.