House of Horrible

“It’s a tired, played-out rehash of a hokey format that insults the audience by using stale stereotypes as jokes.”

I was composing this sentence on my way to see Bringing Down the House; it was to be the opening of my review. From the ubiquitous commercials and advertisements, I was expecting a lame film. But now that I’m a law student and supposed to understand the importance of due process, I gave it a chance. Unfortunately, Bringing Down the House was even lamer than I anticipated.

This fish-out-of-water buddy comedy juxtaposes preppy workaholic lawyer Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) against sassy ex-con Charlene (Queen Latifah).

Divorced and lonely, Peter wanders into a legal chat room and meets who he thinks is a demure, thin, blonde fellow attorney. He’s in for a surprise when his internet date turns out to be heavier, darker and more aggressive than he expects. Charlene, arrested for armed robbery and in need of an attorney to help clear her name, bum-rushes her way into Peter’s life and refuses to leave until he agrees to represent her.

As with your run-of-the-mill odd-couple pairings, Peter and Charlene clash at the beginning – he admonishes her for her lack of decorum, and she admonishes him for having too much decorum. In one scene, Charlene throws an unauthorized party at Peter’s house and has his son roll dice for her crap game; when he discovers this and goes ballistic, she tells him to “mellow out.” Peter is annoyed by Charlene’s slang. He repeatedly wonders out loud why she doesn’t use more formal language.

But, true to the buddy comedy format, they eventually find some common ground and even develop some respect for each other.

Charlene finally gets Peter to “mellow out” when she teaches him how to dance and then tutors him on how to make love to his wife – in an unrealistic scene that has the two of them gyrating all over one another.

For his part, Peter comes to believe Charlene’s story and takes risks to get to the bottom of her armed robbery conviction.

The problem with Bringing Down the House is that it depends heavily on stereotypes but forgets two basic rules about how to make them funny.

First, stereotypes must be authentic in order to work. There’s a scene where Charlene tries to dissuade Peter from going into an urban nightclub. She says, “You don’t even speak ‘hood.'” The last time I checked, “hood” was not a language, so the joke didn’t ring true; it just fell flat.

Second, the best jokes are those that infuse some freshness into a stereotype. Bringing Down the House never quite gets this right. All the stereotypes are ones we’ve seen many times before, from the nubile vixen who separates old men from their money to the menacing black men looking for a fight to the sour spinster (Joan Plowright) who’s constant companion is a small dog.

But Charlene takes the cake with her overly sexualized personality and consistently bad attitude. Too often, black women in mainstream films are relegated to this type of role, so it was disappointing here to see it required of a black actress even in a rare leading role. (To top it off, Peter’s law partner, played by Eugene Levy, desires Charlene and mentions it every time he has a scene.)

Those who might be looking for Steve Martin to revive his physical comedy antics and impersonations from the 1979 film The Jerk will be royally disappointed. Martin has lost some of his comedic edge and appears considerably subdued. What should have been his funniest scene – a hip-hop dance routine in a club – was merely almost funny. And Queen Latifah seemed to be dumbing herself down for most of the movie. It was almost painful to watch, especially since she was the film’s executive producer.

Plowright gives a perfectly quirky performance as Mrs. Arness, the big client that Peter tries to land throughout the movie. But overall, Bringing Down the House is a downer. The only thing remotely surprising here was seeing Steve Harris (The Practice’s Eugene Young) on the other side of the law.

Printed with permission from the Harvard Law Record.