Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Bringing Down The House



USA 2003 : Adam SHANKMAN : 105 mins

Spike Lee reportedly refused to see Bringing Down the House as he thought it sounded like an offensive take on contemporary US race and class relations. Such a stance defines the word prejudice pretty well but in this case it turns out Spike was spot on: he’s done himself a big favour by refusing to waste time on what turns out to be a very sub-standard comedy. Even Shankmans shoddy J-Lo vehicle The Wedding Planner is a cut above this mirthless effort, every plot point of which relies on ludicrous and tiresome coincidence and/or contrivance.

Straight-laced lawyer Peter (Steve Martin) is lonely after divorcing his wife Kate (Jean Smart). He starts an internet chat-room romance with a correspondent known only as Lawyergirl, and arranges a blind date but rather than the cool, poised blonde of his imagination, Lawyergirl turns out to be hefty black sex-bomb Charlene (Queen Latifah), an ex-con who wants Peter to help clear her name. Peters shocked refusal sets off various laboured would-be-comic shenanigans that end up having plenty of unexpectedly beneficial effects on every aspect of his life.

The problems are straightforward: Jason Filardis script simply doesn’t contain enough good jokes or sufficiently comic scenes, and Shankman lacks the directorial skills to bring it all to life. Martin and Latifah throw themselves energetically into their roles, but too often they cross the line between broad comedy and desperate mugging, Martin especially and Shankman either can’t or won’t stop them going way over the top. In the supporting cast, talents like Smart and Eugene Levy are wasted in thankless roles: Levys Howie seems included solely to provide Charlene with a love-match towards the end of the movie. Howie is needed because Filardi has Peter and Kate drifting back together, even though Kate was in the middle of what seemed like a very satisfying new romance with young stud Glenn (Victor Webster) – who simply vanishes from the movie when his character becomes inconvenient to the clunky plotting.

More worryingly, isn’t it bizarre to have a supposed romantic comedy such as this where the leads don’t actually end up together? Could the film-makers really feared that American audiences are still not ready to see a black woman and a WASP man live happily ever after? Filardi includes two female characters whose racism towards Charlene is blatant: Kates cartoonishly evil sister-in-law Ashley (Missi Pyle) and Peters homophobic (Jewish??) neighbour Mrs Kline (Betty White). But neither get the climactic come-uppance which they deserve and we expect. Filardi and Shankman are too busy spinning out embarrassing scenes like Peters visit to a downtown nightclub where he adopts cringingly sub-Bulworth wigga clothes and slang: half the movies jokes involve the well-spoken Peter getting his tongue around gangsta lingo, while the remainder mainly consist of stuck-up white folks getting unsettled and befuddled by Charlenes mere presence.

It certainly doesn’t help matters, meanwhile, that Shankman rams home every development by cranking up Lalo Schifrins overbearing score, or that he allows cinematographer Julio Macat to occasionally shoot Martin using a slight – but noticeable and distracting – gauzy effect to hide his advancing years, especially when the age-gap between Peter and Charlene is supposed to be part of the gag. And what is that title supposed to mean, exactly? Charlene certainly shakes up Peters dull existence, but demolishing his property never features on her list of achievements. Theres a double meaning, of course, Bringing Down the House as in causing gales of laughter – an event extremely unlikely to occur in any cinema unlucky enough to play host to this misfire.

20th May, 2003
(seen same day: Warner Village, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

For other films rated 1 and 2/10 check out The Diorama of Dishonour

by Neil Young