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No "Safety" (Or Satisfaction) in "Bringing Down" the Suburbs

  • Michael Medved Your Cultural Crusader
  • Published Mar 06, 2003
No "Safety" (Or Satisfaction) in "Bringing Down" the Suburbs

What’s so terrible about suburban life?

Am I the only guy in America who feels grateful every day to live in a comfortable house with a view of a lake, a three car garage, a pretty wife, and three good kids? The statistics and surveys indicate that most families own their own homes and feel overwhelmingly pleased and proud with the lives they’ve managed to build for themselves.

Why, then, does Hollyweird invariably insist on portraying middle class existence as an unending torment and depicting even our most privileged suburbs as hell on earth?

Two more star-studded message movies arrive on the first Friday in March to convey this simplistic, screechy message—a hackneyed, dishonest theme that passes for profound social criticism in today’s pop culture. The Safety of Objects, a grandly ambitious art film, and Bringing Down the House, a sleazy, stupidly exploitative Steve Martin comedy, both offer intermittent interludes of insight and entertainment, but both will cause depression and distress for any moviegoer with a modicum of sensitivity.

The Safety of Objects deploys an ensemble cast of capable professionals to emphasize the cruelties and loneliness of middle class households in the haunted spirit of American Beauty--but with no character as sympathetic or intriguing as Kevin Spacey’s hero in that insanely over-praised and Oscar-winning film. Glenn Close plays a heart-broken mother who obsessively nurses her adored teenaged son (Joshua Jackson), lying in a coma after a mysterious accident. She largely ignores her workaholic husband (Robert Klein) and sexually rebellious daughter (Jessica Campbell).  Next door lies a slightly slutty single mom (Patricia Clarkson, who made a strong impression as the nosy neighbor in Far From Heaven, another suburbs-basher) struggling to raise one borderline autistic kid and a pre-teen girl (Kristen Stewart) who’s so boyish that it comes as a shock to both viewers and on key character when she turns out to be female. Dermot Mulroney and Moira Kelly play the best-looking yuppie couple on the block, but he goes through a squirm-inducing nervous breakdown when he fails to make partner in his law firm, and their son (Alex House) devotes most of his love and lust to an impassioned relationship with a Barbie doll he carries with him everywhere. Mary Kay Place (who invariably turns up in any “socially serious” movie with an ensemble cast) portrays the aging spouse to a sexist pig, longing to seduce the hunky pool man (Timothy Olyphant) who is more interested in kidnapping and possibly molesting children than in seducing women.

Writer-director Rose Troche, previously best known for her nearly unwatchable Lesbian-lonely-hearts movie Go Fish, here adapts various short stories by A.M. Homes and cobbles them together with a much-too-cute device: all these suffering characters connect in some fateful way to the mysterious accident that put Joshua Jackson in a coma. Only at the end of the movie do we finally get to see that mishap, but by that time most viewers will be in their own coma, or in a deep sleep, or at least a blue funk.

The excellent and intense performances (especially by Glenn Close and Timothy Olyphant) make you feel the pain and hopelessness of these materially privileged people, but it’s impossible to like any of them. The promotional materials for the film proclaim that each of these people is “smothered by the posh comforts of the material objects that surround them,” but even if you made a huge bonfire of all their stuff they would still come across as selfish, self-destructive, shallow jerks. An unbearably vulgar radio contest in which several of the main characters get involved in competing for a free car that none of them need constitutes one of the plot’s dramatic highlights, as the picture takes a full two hours to hammer away relentlessly at its central point: that in frantic pursuit of material well-being and “the safety of objects” these pathetic creatures squander any joy in life and all chance for loving or meaningful connection.

Aside from the fact that few observers of contemporary life above the age of 15 could consider this notion some sort of blinding epiphany, the movie fails to support its own theme by concentrating mostly on stay-at-home moms and their children rather than wage earners. The only character who actually seems to hold a real job is the stressed out legal eagle played by Dermot Mulroney, and he abandons his work at the very beginning of the movie--so for most of the film we watch people enjoying their affluence with no visible effort. A more compelling comment on the lives recreated here might have focused on this odd anomaly, recognizing that it’s impossible to feel satisfaction from material blessings unless you know that you’ve worked hard for them. Lottery winners, in other words, seem to suffer from far more personal problems than independent businessmen who’ve toiled all their lives to accumulate wealth and usually feel that they deserve to enjoy it.

In this context, it makes sense that Hollyweird would look askance at prosperous, upper-middleclass Americans, and assume that they are all miserable---since there is no business in America which offers spectacle monetary rewards on a more capricious, unpredictable basis, often unconnected to hard (or decent) work, than does the entertainment industry. TWO STARS for The Safety of Objects. Rated R (appropriately) for frequent, often disturbing sexual content, and harsh language.

Bringing Down the House tries for laughs rather than social commentary, but still unleashes an avalanche of controversial messages, all of them bad. The most offensive aspect of this lame excuse for a comedy involves the most one-dimensional racial stereotyping this side of “Birth of a Nation.” All black characters happen to be emotional, uneducated, over-sexed, violent, warm-hearted, hip, cool and connected to the criminal underclass. All white characters are uptight, repressed, clumsy, materialistic, shallow, cruel and incurably racist: one of them even calls Queen Latifah “Jemima,” and another asks the female lead to sing “that wonderful old Negro spiritual” about “Ol Massa’”

The plot opens with real promise and contemporary edge as Steve Martin, a divorced Beverly Hills tax attorney, gets involved in a flirtatious relationship in an Internet chat room with a bright colleague he knows only as “lawyer girl.” They arrange to meet for a romantic, champagne dinner that he painstakingly prepares at his elegant home, but the frisky femme from the Internet turns out to be a violent convict (who only pretended to be a lawyer) played by the fleshly and irrepressible Queen Latifah. Steve Martin rudely resolves to throw her out of his house before the racist neighbors raise a scandal, but she refuses to leave until he helps her prove that she was wrongly convicted for armed robbery. She basically takes over his house (even inviting about a hundred of her gangsta, homie, inner city friends for a wild house party at Martin’s premises.

Of course, she also teaches the shyster a few life lessons--about the joys of down-n-dirty sex (“You got to talk dirty to her, real nasty!”) and the dangerous charm of hip hop culture. His children, assigned to poppa while ex-wife Jean Smart goes away for the weekend with a golf-trainer twenty years younger, also benefit from the interloper’s innovations. The movie unequivocally endorses marijuana and booze and parental forgiveness even for blatant lies from a precocious fifteen-year-old determined to make out with her boyfriend at an orgiastic party and to enrich her mind with the drug ecstasy.

The best performances come from supporting players, including the always amusing Eugene Levy as a super-sophisticated lawyer who becomes comically smitten with Queen Latifah (“She’s a cocoa goddess!”); Joan Plowright as a stuffy heiress (with a pampered bulldog named William Shakespeare) who might become Steve Martin’s most important client; and especially, the little known but physically imposing Milli Pyle as Martin’s ex-sister-in-law, a sinister, serpentine seductress who specializes in separating elderly lotharios from their money.

The PG-13 rating is ridiculous, and ought to be the occasion for protest to the Motion Picture Association of America and to the Disney Company, which produced this embarrassing offal. The sexual content alone (including scenes described by the characters as “humping,” and highly specific references to testicles and other intimate parts) should have earned an obvious R rating—but then there’s also abundant drug content, crude language, and even violent brawls and gunplay.

Queen Latifah certainly exudes likeability and charisma, but no performer--not matter how much larger than life--could bring vitality and conviction to this ridiculous characterization. After watching her exploitation in this by-the-numbers recycling of insulting stereotypes, her current Oscar nomination looks even more questionable. Steve Martin fares little better, and a climactic sequence in which he’s supposed to suddenly transform himself into a superfly hip hop tough guy in the style of Eminem (complete with dance moves, costume and funny, Mike Tyson-sound-alike voice) comes across as more feeble than the worst old sketch from "Saturday Night Live". Martin fares much better when he doesn’t try so hard to be a Wild and Crazy Guy (remember his winning work in Roxanne) and one can only hope that he’ll remember that lesson when he steps up to the big stage to host the Oscar show two weeks from now. No one will win Academy nominations of any kind for Bringing Down the House, though we may keep it in mind for Golden Turkey Awards.  (ONE AND A HALF STARS).