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I had sincere misgivings about renting this movie. Steve Martin has lost so much allure for me since the days of Comedy Is Not Pretty and Wild and Crazy Guy, his two astonishing comedy records that influenced me for a lifetime. Giving in to old age, respectability, and being self-impressed with his frequent appearances is The New Yorker, Martin lost a lot of the wackiness that made The Jerk, Man With Two Brains, and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid so enjoyable.
Frankly, I have trouble forgetting his performance in Father of the Bride. I'm sure he was in more sappy, sloppy, mushy, family-style pap besides that one, but somehow that movie sticks in the craw of my memory, as it were, as the unfortunate compromise that disenchanted the funniest white man in America.
Not only did I have misgivings about Martin, but also about the subject of Bringing Down the House, patently apparent from its cover even without the general hype that surrounded the theatrical release. I was going to have to watch a racial comedy where white people acted like black people. Not that this can't be funny, but it has been so overdone for so long that I despaired of seeing anything original enough to make me laugh. Spike Lee could do it with Bamboozled, but he wasn't making a comedy.
It was my dear wife, the lovely Mrs. Worsted, who requested a comedy, something mellow to zone out to. My choice at the video store, King of the Hill, looked heavy. Eugene Levy's presence in The House was good incentive to give it a shot, and then Jeff at Family Video and DVD said, "It's pretty funny, actually," and that closed the deal.
Jeff was right, and so was I. It is pretty funny, and Levy is in top form. On top of that, Martin is in top form, a delightful surprise. And Queen Latifah rounds out the top-form triumvirate. Not that you're in the presence of greatness with this movie, but it certainly does provide a decent night's entertainment.
Bringing Down the House is the tale of Larry the Lawyer (Martin), a workaholic, up-tight tax attorney who falls into an Internet friendship with "Lawyer_girl." Separated from his wife, Larry decides to try meeting the girl in person, and is shocked to find that Charlene is a large, sassy, sexy black woman who recently got out of prison after being convicted of armed robbery.
Charlene is obviously not what Larry had in mind: he is as white as they come, working for an upper-crust, racist law firm and living in an upper-crust, racist neighborhood, across the street from Betty White, who I always liked (and it pained me to see her play a rich bigot). Charlene's pursuit and deception of Larry isn't just for giggles. She claims to be innocent of the crime and in desperate need of legal assistance to clear her name. Larry refuses to help her, but Charlene has ways of changing his mind, mainly by playing her race against Larry's lifestyle. Pretending to be the mother of his lovechild, loudly on the front lawn, for example, regains her entry into his house.
But race and class tensions don't always work in Charlene's favor. Larry is trying to court a billion-dollar client, a matronly woman whose attitudes seem to come through time and distance from the antebellum plantations of Georgia. Once Larry has been coerced into helping Charlene, he makes her pose as a nanny, a maid, and a church choir leader to keep his prejudiced compatriots satisfied that he'd never actually befriend an African American. The lawyer and the convict are thrown into situation after situation where racial tension is the source of comedy (especially when Larry finally leaves his white-bread world for Charlene's natural scene, deep downtown).
Larry has two children whose struggles form the subplots. Charlene is the force that brings them out of their difficulties, the daughter with her adolescent shenanigans and the son with his difficulty in school. This helps create true friendship between the superwoman con (mother, lover, fighter, grifter, crusader) and the well-situated attorney. It also helps that Larry's colleague, played by Levy, has a thing for Charlene. To hear Levy speak in what sounded to me like passable Afro-urban parlance was, even familiar as it's become, funny. Furthermore, Levy's unbridled propensity--okay, lust--for Latifah makes him one of the more consistently likeable characters, second only to Latifah herself.
Finally, Larry the lawyer becomes convinced of Charlene's innocence and begins to work to clear her name. Antics, shenanigans, intrigues and excitement ensue when Larry confronts the gangstas who set Charlene up. The rich prospective client and her French bulldog are kidnapped by Levy and Latifah. Guns go off; ganga is smoked; cops show up; and everything works out as you'd expect.
For such a traditional comedy with such traditional laughs, Bringing Down does a good job of being likeable. The funny stuff is pretty funny and gags are not milked overlong (except for the fight scene between Charlene and Larry's sister in law). The fact that the comedy is all racially derived doesn't bother me much. I don't think the core message is racist considering that all the bigots are served their just deserts. I could imagine that the stereotypes could be problematic to someone more sensitive or consciousness-raised than I. I wonder what Spike Lee or bell hooks would think of this film. Regardless, I found a good helping of mirth and a welcome return of Steve Martin to actually funny comedy.
©2003 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.