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The White Stuff

Steve Martin’s uptighty whitey in Bringing Down the House falls miserably short of being funny; in Tears of the Sun, Bruce Willis gets to play Great White Father.


Hip to be Square: Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, and Eugene Levy star in Bringing Down the House.  

The idea of Steve Martin and Queen Latifah co-starring in the same movie is so funny that, initially, I tittered at Bringing Down the House just to be a good sport. I was laughing at the comedy I hoped would soon be happening. But, although that pairing alone may be enough to make this movie a hit, the material is thin and pandering and almost criminally negligent in bypassing opportunities for humor. Adam Shankman, who directed from a script by Jason Filardi, seems to think that all you have to do to make people laugh is play Martin’s whiter-than-whiteness against Latifah’s soul-sister swagger. That particular joke is funny for about the first minute, after which we’re left with much questionable racial humor interspersed with even more questionable soggy inspirationalism.

Martin plays Peter Sanderson, a divorced, workaholic tax attorney who meets Latifah’s Charlene in an Internet chat room and, thinking she’s a ravishing blonde, prepares to woo her—before being rudely awakened to the fact that his dream date is actually a convicted felon trying to clear her name. Charlene talks about being from the ’hood, and she has a mean left hook and a tattoo, but basically she’s a sweetheart. Against Peter’s wishes, she moves into his sprawling suburban-L.A. digs and, while he’s away, throws a big house party for all her homies, with lots of gambling and loud boogeying. There goes the neighborhood. Later, Charlene teaches Peter’s learning-disabled son to read by having him peruse a skin magazine his father has stashed away. Unbelievably, this scene is played for heartwarming sincerity. Then Charlene pretends to be a nanny to Peter’s children and barely endures the racial slurs of a billionaire biddy, played by Joan Plowright, whom Peter is frantically trying to represent. If you think you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Joan Plowright bogart a joint, by all means rush to see Bringing Down the House.

Steve Martin has made negligible comedies in the past—Sgt. Bilko and The Out of Towners come to mind. Still, why should someone so gifted waste his time slumming? It can’t only be for the paycheck. The answer must be that he saw an opportunity here to get back to his physical-comedy roots. And based on the script, he wasn’t entirely wrong to take the plunge; several situations in the movie could have been classic, especially a scene where Charlene teaches Peter how to get down on the dance floor. But Shankman, filling in the storyline we don’t care about anyway, keeps cutting away from Martin unleashing his happy feet. It’s bad enough when a director like Chicago’s Rob Marshall pulls this sort of thing, but at least

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