It is the rare film that is capable of offending both Trent Lott and Al Sharpton, but "Bringing Down the House" gets the job done, and how. An embarrassment for all concerned, this witless, odd-couple comedy slings separate but equal gibes at blacks and whites . . . and still manages to ridicule gays and Hispanics. Why was this picture made?
And what to make of Queen Latifah's involvement in this sorry debacle? Since she has acknowledged cleaning up the crude script, she clearly read the thing and agreed to play a hip-hop Aunt Jemima anyway. She is also listed as an executive producer of the project.
Steve Martin, whose career has been idling, needed a high-profile movie. But this one? Surely he couldn't have been this desperate for money or attention. His white guy without rhythm doesn't come off as badly as the other white characters. By going along with the program, though, Martin shares responsibility for the film's bigotry.
Martin plays Peter Sanderson, a strait-laced tax attorney who gets his groove on when Charlene Morton (Latifah) invades his staid bourgeois world. Recently divorced, Peter seeks and finds an online love connection with Charlene -- posing as a lanky, blond legal eagle. Hilarity ensues when a loud, plus-size African American shows up at his home for champagne and candlelight.
Charlene, just escaped from prison, claims to be an innocent ex-con who is without resources and needs a lawyer to help clear her record. If he will agree to reopen her case pro bono, she won't sabotage his efforts to woo a crabby billionaire client (Joan Plowright) and to win back the affections of his two adorable children (Kimberly J. Brown and Angus T. Jones) and his lovely wife (Jean Smart).
Over the course of the movie, Charlene assumes the black woman's burden, which entails teaching Peter's son to read (a nudie magazine piques the tyke's interest), saving his daughter from a date-rapist and eventually reuniting him with his wife. But first, she shows him how to dance dirty, talk jive and kick up in the boudoir. (He's so inept at the latter, you'd think white men can't . . . but the evidence doesn't bear this conclusion out.)
Meanwhile Peter puts Charlene in all manner of humiliating situations. At his restricted country club, she is taunted by his ex-wife's inexplicably racist sister Ashley (Missi Pyle), a gold-digger who dates drooling geezers. Another riotous notion. Charlene does get back at Ashley in a surprisingly vicious rumble in the ladies' room.
But Charlene must swallow her pride when Peter begs her to wear a maid's uniform and serve dinner to his prospective client. Though the dowager is obviously British, she begins to reminisce about the black family servants of her childhood. Then she begins to warble a happy darky song from her days on the plantation: "Massa gonna sell some slaves today . . . " She invites Charlene to sing along.
There's another nasty incident involving Peter's nosy, intolerant neighbor (Betty White). Lest the neighbor discover Charlene on the stoop, Peter shoves her into the shrubbery. "I thought I heard a Negro," says the busybody. "No Negro here," he assures her.
Predictably, Peter and Charlene eventually bond and he screws up the courage to help clear her name. To do so, he must corner the real culprit in an all-black nightclub in the ghetto. His idiotic attempt to fit in with the homies is the movie's high point -- for whatever that's worth.
Even with two talented comic actors like Latifah and Martin aboard, the few laughs must be dragged kicking and screaming from this clash of cultural stereotypes. Eugene Levy steals the show with his deadpan delivery of hipster speak and his dogged pursuit of the sassy heroine. Levy also portrays one of the film's few likable characters of any shade. (Condolences to White, Plowright and Pyle.)
Jason Filardi, a first-time screenwriter, includes only one middle-class black character: Peter's seldom-seen secretary. To watch this movie, you would think that virtually all whites are rich, snooty and stupid, and that virtually all blacks are poor, thuggish and stupid.
The moviemakers leave us with a message that only they have managed to avoid: Yes, we are a diverse nation, but can't we all get along?
Bringing Down the House (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for language, sexual humor and drug content.