We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Bringing Down the House is a race-relations movie that leaves you thinkingmostly about how the hell Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, and Eugene Levy ever figured that Aunt Jemima references and slave songs at a Latifah-serving-the-white-folk dinner would come across as hilarious satire. Bringing Down the House fills most of its characters with racism of the what’s-she-doing-here variety, and though such baldfacedness may seem realistic at a snooty country club, it’s downright befuddling at, say, a law firm, where Peter (Martin) is fumbling to get the ghetto-fabulous Charlene (Latifah) out of his office before his boss comes in. The setup has potential: Recently divorced, straitlaced Peter strikes up an Internet relationship with a woman who poses as a fellow lawyer. When they finally meet, he’s surprised to learn that she’s not the perky blonde who’s front and center in a picture she’d sent him, but the full-figured ex-con in the background. Charlene’s motive for reaching out to Peter, it turns out, isn’t love, but rather to elicit his help in getting her record cleared of the crime she didn’t commit. By the time Peter discovers this fact, most of the movie’s trailer-ruined funniest moments have passed, and all the characters save Levy’s geek-freak Howie have become irritatingif not downright hateful. Betty White and Joan Plowright play equally stuck-in-the-past bigots; Missi Pyle, as Peter’s ex-sister-in-law, Ashley, frequently threatens Charlene and gets into a way-weird and too-scary-to-be-funny fight with her; and even Charlene, the film’s alleged good girl, acts supremely rude and annoying as she insists on taking over Peter’s home and life as if he were the one who put her in jail. Martin, at least, does have a few old-school moments, particularly in a scene in which Charlene is teaching a drunk Peter how to talk dirty and he channels his inner Jerk (“I want to kiss youa lot! Then I’m going to give you…an aromatherapy massage!”). Everyone, of course, learns to get along by film’s end, but Bringing Down the House’s disconcerting undertones never really go away. Tricia Olszewski