Bad-Faves: Bringing Down the House

I watched this 2003 hit for the first time in over a decade. Ouch.

  Bringing Down the House  (Touchstone Pictures)

Bringing Down the House (Touchstone Pictures)

Bad-Faves is a section where I explore my problematic faves (people or content) and try (and fail) to salvage any moral or societal good from them.

Like every other branch, my local HMV store (RIP) would often house endless stands of pointless DVDs. Most of these were films ranging from bad (The Day After Tomorrow) to stunningly mediocre (I don’t own a film good enough to fit this description).

One of my previous, mindless purchases includes the 2003 comedy Bringing Down the House, starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah. Described as a “US box office smash”, the film somehow grossed a now-unbelievable $164m total worldwide against a budget of $33m. The story begins with recently divorced, workaholic dad Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) befriending a white blonde woman in an online forum named Charlene. The two decide to meet. Unfortunately for Peter, Charlene (Queen Latifah) isn’t a lawyer like he is. She’s a black woman convicted of armed robbery.

What follows is a series of crass jokes, obvious setups and lots of physical comedy as Charlene persuades Peter to help overturn her record, insisting she never committed the crime. This also means Peter lets Charlene stay in his house, helping him get out of his professional and personal funk, as he tries to woo ex-wife Kate again (Jean Smart) and acquire the contract of wealthy heiress Virginia Arness (Joan Plowright). Oh, and he never catches a break thanks to the evil former sis-in-law (Missi Pyle) or animated and pervy friend (Eugene Levy), making spending time with his kids even more difficult to arrange.

Now you might think this sounds like your average, quirky, mainstream comedy but the main issue - and source of comedy - derives from the assumption that virtually every white person in this film is either openly or secretly racist. It’s what causes Peter to hide Charlene from a racist neighbour (played by Betty White - as if this cast wasn’t already great) and have Charlene play the nanny to Peter’s kids.

This involves a particularly amazing scene where Charlene is dressed as a 1950s nanny as she overlooks Joan Plowright’s character singing a “negro spiritual” with the lyrics “Mama, is master going to sell us tomorrow?” which is...yep, exactly. Another memorable moment involves Kate assuming Peter is now hooking up with Charlene, protesting that “once you go black, you never go back” and will be unable to win him back.

And that’s the real problem here. Although using racial misunderstanding can often lead to subtle, complex or even coarse humour in films and TV shows, the central confusion throughout the film is Peter wondering why Charlene “acts” black, being surprised by her intelligence and use of legal arguments that could overturn her robbery conviction. As a brown Muslim with a Yorkshire accent, I’m familiar with similar presumptions made of me and other people of colour with regards to our abilities and experiences. This trope of whiteness being a substitute to meaning educated and civilised will always be the laziest form of racism.

There are other, lesser problems here too. For example, Eugene Levy was great in the American Pie films with his signature deadpan delivery. Here, he goes beyond his peak with his overzealous character. Then again, he did somehow reach a second peak, getting a leading role with Samuel L Jackson in The Man soon after this, a film I refuse to look up. Something else that goes way beyond its welcome is an extended, slapstick fight scene between Charlene and Ashley, Missi Pyle’s character.

Also, there is quite clearly an editing error. In between two nighttime scenes, Peter is confronted by his bosses at work about his personal life. We can let this go, given the film was edited by Gerald Greenberg, a chap nominated for Oscars for editing the minor hits Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs Kramer and The French Connection, winning for the latter. Oh, and given we’ve mentioned the insanely talented cast, the film was directed by Adam Shankman, a well-regarded choreographer whose credits are objectively impressive.

But how the heck can this still be a “fave” of mine? Okay, that term is very loosely used here. This DVD was stored in an Orange-branded box (the company now known as EE) that I hadn’t opened for at least five years, just to get my excuse out of the way. It even skipped twice during playback.

One major plus is how the film is shockingly progressive in one area, with Queen Latifah shouting the phrase “no means no” with regards to consent when humiliating a minor character. Contrast this with the recent revelations of sexual misconduct across Hollywood and the simultaneous awarding of Gary Oldman, Kobe Bryant, Casey Affleck and others, hearing “no means no” in a film over fifteen years old is pretty refreshing.

It’s also fairly amazing to hear Joan Plowright say “teabag”, smoke a joint in a nightclub and call a crowd of people “pussies” in the same film. In fact, her crazy character is the main reason I’m yet to trash my copy of this film. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t aged worse than it already had upon release. I’m now left wondering how far social media would have taken this movie to task and made it at least a noticeable footnote in recent cinema history. For now, it remains a forgotten turd.