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Bringing Down the House

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Bringing Down the House

from Film Forum, 03/13/03

Bringing Down the House (Touchstone), from director Adam Shankman, boasts an odd couple placed in a situation wired for comedy. But according to the reviews, there's a short in the wiring.

Here's the setup: An encounter in an online chat room leads attorney Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) into a challenging relationship with Charlene (Queen Latifah), a spirited prison escapee trying to clear her name. Sanderson needs help too. His workaholic tendencies caused his wife to divorce him and take the kids with her. So the stuffy white guy and the wild-and-crazy black woman are the right match at the wrong time. Supposedly.

Religious press critics are not laughing, and they're not at all impressed with the gross behavior and marital advice the movie passes off as admirable. As if that isn't enough, they have a few words about the film's racial stereotyping.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Shankman milks the exaggerated racial stereotypes for laughs and occasionally gets guffaws from Martin and Latifah's physical comedy talents. But sometimes an unpleasantly mean-spirited tone sneaks in."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says the movie "thinks it is enlightened because it is down on white culture and down with black culture. It is not. Along with National Security earlier this year, it represents a step backward for race relations, and a step backward for black characters in Hollywood. It reduces to bashing white culture and pandering to black culture, in a way that ultimately demeans everyone."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the movie "commits the worst possible sin for a comedy. It's not that funny. Uptight middle-aged white men trying to act like they're from the 'hood? Old women smoking pot and getting stoned? The film contains nothing but recycled gags which are worn so thin that the audience can see right through them."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) defends the movie: "What makes this film different … is its focus on changing culture and language. Charlene represents the far-reaching influence of urban culture." He argues that the film leaves us "with essential truths to ponder."

And Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Had it not been handled properly, a great deal of the politically incorrect humor would have come across as racist. As it is, the humor mocks racism, giving us a very funny film that ultimately draws blacks and whites together. Although you can see nearly every joke coming, both Latifah and Martin fortify the jocularity with zest and style."

But Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says discerning viewers "will leave the theater more rankled than regaled. Content matters, and Bringing Down the House is no Father of the Bride." Also concerned about content, Alan Boyer (Preview) says, "Sexual situations, crude language and racist humor earn Bringing Down the House a negative acceptability rating."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says the movie "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."

Mainstream critics also find the film a downer. Josh Larsen (Suburban Chicago News) argues that the movie "intends to unite black and white audiences, and it probably will—by reinforcing the laziest images they both have of each other."

Moira Macdonald (The Seattle Times) agrees that this "is the rare film that manages to be simultaneously bland and offensive. It's an endless parade of rich racist white people and streetwise black people, all of whom behave inexplicably. Presumably other kinds of people exist in the world, but not in this movie."

And Marc Caro (Chicago Tribune) says, "This is problem No. 1: In screwball comedies we're supposed to root for the quirky, loose-cannon female who ruffles the starched-collared man, like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby or even Melanie Griffith in Something Wild. But here we just feel sorry for Peter, who's victimized by a romantic bait-and-switch and must put up with an abrasive home invader who screams about bearing his love child until he submits."