Bringing Down the House Review
By Shawn McKenzie 03/07/2003
Have you noticed that Steve Martin hasn’t done a regular comedy in many years? My friend that I brought with me to the screening of his new movie, Bringing Down the House, pointed out that it has been even longer since he has done a funny comedy. His last regular comedy was in 1999, when he starred in Bowfinger with Eddie Murphy. I thought that movie was just okay. Since then, he has done a couple of indie comedies, Joe Gould’s Secret and Novocaine, both of which I hear are part drama and/or thriller (unfortunately I haven’t seen either of those movies yet as of this writing.) His last funny comedy (at least in my opinion) was Sgt. Bilko, and that came out in 1996! What is up with the inconsistent work from the man who brought us The Jerk and The Lonely Guy? Oh well…I guess good things come to those who wait, and this movie was worth the wait.
Peter Sanderson (Martin) is a divorced attorney who still loves his ex-wife Kate (Jean Smart) and doesn’t see that his hectic work schedule is what drove her away. Since he figures he won’t be able to get her back, he decides to move on with his life by chatting online with a woman he thinks is an attractive white blonde lawyer. His assumption is based on the picture she has sent him of her and the legal terminology she uses in their chats. They arrange to meet one night at his house, and he gets a big surprise. Instead of a blonde lawyer, it’s Charlene (Queen Latifah), a black prison escapee who claims she is innocent. She wants Peter to help clear her name, and did the online flirting in order to rope him in (she points out that she is the woman being hauled away by the police in the background of the blonde lawyer picture.) Peter tries several times to get rid of her, especially since he doesn’t want to rile the suspicions of his racist neighbor, Mrs. Kline (Betty White), but she manipulates her way back in. A few people are on Charlene’s side though. Peter’s friend and co-worker, Howie Rottman (Eugene Levy), is attracted to Charlene and has a strange awareness of her slang. Peter’s kids, Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown) and her younger brother Georgey (Angus T. Jones), have taken a liking to her, if only because they think she can loosen their dad up. Sarah likes the bad boys, and she feels a connection to Charlene, since the jailbird has a bad boy past, like her ex-boyfriend, Widow (Steve Harris), who dumped her when she went to prison. Georgey likes Charlene because she is fun and teaches him how to read in a way that know one else has tried before. Peter also has a few people that could be a problem for him because of his association with Charlene. His ex sister-in-law, Ashley (Missi Pyle), is suspicious of her. Also, a possible new billion dollar client, Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright), has the same racist attitudes towards Charlene as Mrs. Kline, which makes it hard for Peter to land her business. He has to compete for her business with a young scheming lawyer from his firm named Todd Gendler (Michael Rosenbaum.) Peter tells these people that Charlene is the nanny, of which she goes along with gritting teeth. As Peter tries to help Charlene with her case, Charlene helps Peter with his life, which includes trying to identify more with his kids and possibly getting back together with Kate.
I had a feeling I would like this movie. I can usually tell this when even the trailers for a movie crack me up. So many things make this movie hilarious. Martin was the perfect choice to play the role of Peter. He is one of the whitest men on the planet, from his white hair to his goofy uptightness (all devices that made him equally funny as a “poor black child” in The Jerk.) He looks and sounds so out of place while trying to use street slang and dress “gangsta.” On the flipside, Levy’s use of the slang wasn’t necessarily natural, but very unexpected (well, assuming you hadn’t seen the trailers.) He stole every scene he had with his affinity for the language. Latifah may have gone a little overboard with the street language and attitude, but I think maybe that was what was called for here. Pyle has a great fight scene with Latifah that will bust your gut. There is another dinner scene involving Plowright that will either anger you (with the racist things she says) or amuse you (because of Latifah’s reactions to it, and since it is so ignorantly Archie Bunker-like.)
There was one thing that bothered me about the film. Why is it that people who are really white and/or racist suddenly become hip and street just by listening to rap music or smoking pot? I’m not racist one bit, but I’m very white (though not as white as Martin) and I listen to rap music all the time, so how come I’m not acting and dressing gangsta? (I’ve never smoked pot though, so maybe that’s the problem…nah!) It's a gag I have seen in many movies and I just think it's getting a little old.
It’s been a long time since Martin has done a comedy like Bringing Down the House. I was beginning to miss the guy! Along with the return of “funny Steve Martin,” I have to applaud director Adam Shankman for redeeming himself. Last year he directed a movie that made my top five worst movies of 2002 list called A Walk to Remember (see the list here.) If this is the kind of movie they can put out, I’d like to see them work together again soon. Keep the momentum going, Steve!
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