BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE - DVD review

Steve Martin used to be a wild and crazy guy. Now he's as bland as his hair.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"Boring Everyone in the House" is more like it. The Wife-O-Meter registered one genuine laugh in the forty minutes or so she stayed to watch, and I smiled maybe twice during the entire picture. Steve Martin is a funny guy and 2003's "Bringing Down the House" did good box office, but the film is not among the entertainer's most-inspired work.

Martin plays an uptight, moneygrubbing tax attorney whose life gets disrupted when an outgoing, fun-loving black woman (Queen Latifah), recently out of prison, coerces him into helping her prove her innocence. At first he resists, but eventually she wears him down, and, of course, in time the two inevitably become friends. That's it. But what's it about? What's its purpose?

I suppose you could say first and foremost it's a satire. But of what? Racism? Racial stereotypes? Corporate greed? Those issues have been satirized to death, and there's certainly no life left in them here. Almost every white person in the film, including Martin's character in the beginning, is portrayed as an upwardly mobile racist bigot. Practically every black person is portrayed as a jive-talking, pot-smoking layabout. With these kind of tired, offensive, exaggerated caricatures, where are the satirical barbs?

OK, maybe if the satire is old hat, you could say the film is attempting to be a good, old, straightforward comedy. But it's not very funny. Some critics would say it's not even funny, negate the "very," period. Do two smiles in 105 minutes constitute a comedy? Besides, most of the jokes derive from the film's racist jokes, and since they're either lame or awkward, they don't come off as very amusing. While at the dinner table a rich white woman sings a Negro spiritual she learned as a child; Martin talks and dresses like a hip, inner-city black rapper at an all-black night spot; the country-club set rejects Queen Latifah's presence when she shows up there. These moments are more trite and embarrassing than humorous.

Perhaps the movie is meant as a serious moral lesson, since the ending tries to show how people of all colors, sex, shape, and size can get along famously together if they only try. But as the movie goes on and things become increasingly preposterous, it's hard to accept the sentimentalized conclusion as anything more than stereotypical Hollywood corn. Moreover, we already know the moral from a million other movies and from real life, and we don't need to be hit over the head with it again.

Well, there's always the possibility the film is trying to be an old-fashioned character study, something along the lines of a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges picture. Certainly, "Bringing Down the House" has a number of colorful characters in it. But their simply being distinctive doesn't necessarily make them appealing, which is what Capra's and Sturges's characters were all about. Martin, for instance, as Peter Sanderson, the lawyer, spends most of the film as a tense, stiff, conventional, middle-aged, divorced white guy and clueless father, living only for money, never for pleasure. Never mind the miraculous change at the end of the story; we have to put up with him the rest of the time. Queen Latifah as Charlene Morton is for most of the film a pushy loudmouth with all the social grace of a Tyrannosaurus. Her antics are meant to be funny, but she's too uncouth to care about. She literally blackmails her way into Peter's life. What's to like about either of these people?

Eugene Levy plays a typically Eugene Levy kind of role as Peter's ultraconservative best friend and fellow lawyer. But the twist is that he's really a hipster who madly falls in love Charlene. His is the only character in the film that shows any sign of life by being, ironically, the most underplayed. The rest of the cast, though attempting to be colorful, are ciphers, zeros. Jean Smart plays Kate, Peter's lackluster ex-wife who's carrying on with a tennis pro half her age. Missi Pyle plays Ashley, Peter's venomous former sister-in-law, who's constantly on the lookout for a rich husband-to-be. Joan Plowright plays a rich, racist old lady whose business Peter wants; Betty White plays one of Peter's racist neighbors. All the other characters, Peter's bosses, his kids, his associates, are too bland to remember.

Most of "Bringing Down the House" goes by without incident. There's very little fun in it, very little drama, and even less characterization. Peter spends most of his time trying to hide Charlene from his friends and family or making up excuses for her presence. A fistfight between Ashley and Charlene is more bizarre than humorous. It's all formulaic stuff, filled with absurd coincidences, moving at the turgid pace of a TV sitcom, and following a schedule any one of us could have written in advance.

In due time Charlene turns Peter into a more fun, caring, sensitive guy (implying more black), and Peter turns Charlene into a more conventional, conformist woman (implying more white), and it all seems more insulting than inspirational or uplifting. Viewers conditioned to the mediocre fodder of television comedy may find "Bringing Down the House" a welcome change, but that doesn't make it a good movie. Steve Martin used to be a wild and crazy guy. Now he's as bland as his hair. Steve, baby, where have you gone?

Video:
Again, Buena Vista offer us a beautifully defined picture in rich, bright colors. BV may be starting to make a habit of this, and a pleasant habit it is. The screen image is presented in a wide, 2.13:1 ratio anamorphic size, with a picture that is quite realistic in its clarity. No digital artifacts interfere with one's enjoyment of the video, no grain, no halos, no shimmering lines, no dancing pixels to be found. If there were only more movie to see and care about, the picture quality might have been even better served. Flesh tones are slightly dark but natural enough, and dark areas of the screen veil some inner detail, but these are minor concerns.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 playback is ordinary compared to the deep brilliance of the video. There is a decent front-channel stereo spread and a well-balanced frequency response, but that's about it. Dynamics are ordinary, frequency range is ordinary, bass is strong but not particularly deep, and rear-speaker activity is minimal. Occasionally, one hears footsteps in the surround channels or crowd noises or faint musical ambiance, but it's not pronounced enough to comment upon.

Extras:
Although the movie comes with a full complement of standard extras, like the movie there's nothing special about any of them. First, there's the obligatory audio commentary, this one labeled "Da Commentary," with director Adam Shankman and writer Jason Filardi. After that is a sixteen-minute, behind-the-scenes promotional featurette, "Breaking Down 'Bringing Down the House,'" in which the filmmakers praise the movie they've just made. No surprises there. Then, we get to experience Queen Latifah's music video, "Better Than the Rest," and a three-minute satirical featurette on the hip Eugene Levy as "The Godfather of Hop." Finally, there are seven deleted scenes in non-anamorphic widescreen and a four-minute gag reel that's funnier than anything in the movie. There is a grand total of twelve, count 'em, twelve, scene selections, and the only keep-case insert is an advertisement for two other Buena Vista titles. English and French are the spoken languages provided, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
I had the feeling while watching "Bringing Down the House" that it was a movie about black people made exclusively by white people for white people. Or a movie about white people's perceptions of black people circa 1972, when movies had just begun to open up the field of race relations and interpersonal relationships. If the movie had been made thirty or more years ago, around the time of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," it would probably have had more punch.

In any case, not a moment of the story rings true and not a character in it seems in the least bit plausible. The leads are attractive enough and with the right material--something more original, something less hackneyed--Martin and Latifah might yet produce a funny or meaningful movie. This ain't it.

Ratings

Video
9
Audio
7
Extras
5
Film Value
4