The White Stuff

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

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

you can understand why he does it: Who really wants to watch Richard Gere tap-dance? But Martin is an endlessly inventive comic contortionist. For all the use Shankman makes of him here, he might as well have used—well, Richard Gere.

In an early scene in Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun, a besieged Catholic missionary in civil-war-torn Nigeria tells Navy seal lieutenant A. K. Waters (Bruce Willis) to “go with God.” Waters replies, “God already left Africa.” If you have an ear for this sort of thing, you can almost predict a grateful refugee will end up saying to Waters, “God will never forget you.” God is big in Tears of the Sun. So is manly stoicism and floridly photographed scenes of carnage. Waters has been ordered to retrieve a Doctors Without Borders physician (Monica Bellucci) from a remote village, but she won’t budge unless Waters promises to bring her flock to safety. He and his squadron are perpetually good-to-go. They balk at the extra baggage, but then, with Waters leading the charge, they develop a crushing case of conscience. They become heroes, and martyrs, for defying orders.

In a movie with so much graphic suffering by innocent Africans, it’s a bit disconcerting that so much loving attention is paid to Bruce Willis’s anguished mug. There’s an uncomfortable Great White Father (and Mother) aspect to this movie, which perhaps explains the insertion of the film’s soggiest moment, when an African-American seal tells Waters that the evacuees “are my people, too.” Just in case we forgot. What this film is really about is movie-star sanctification. God will never forget them.

Irreversible, starring Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci (it’s a busy week for the Italian bombshell), is such a ferociously unpleasant experience that, as powerful as it is, I’m hesitant to recommend it without first issuing a slew of disclaimers. It features two sequences—an attack in which a man is literally beaten to a pulp and a brutal rape scene—that are almost impossible to watch. Though many have made the charge, I don’t think anyone can rightly accuse Gaspar Noé, the film’s director, writer, editor, and cinematographer, of using sex or violence as titillation. He shoots his sequences in long, unbroken takes, and the unblinking horror that results is, I think, the opposite of exploitation. There has been so much lurid bloodletting in the movies that you might think nothing could faze us anymore. Think again.

Noé isn’t really investigating the nature of violence; he’s just placing it before us in a way that is more sadistically charged than anything we’ve become accustomed to. The value in this, if indeed there is value, is that Noé forces the audience to examine its responses to what is real and what isn’t. Watching the film makes you feel trapped and crazed—much the way you might feel if all this were actually happening before your eyes. He reclaims the power of cinema to astonish, but in the most hellish of terms.

The difference between Noé’s film and, say, Pulp Fiction is that Tarantino plays around with mayhem with a movie maven’s brio and shuffles time schemes because he likes puzzles. Noé, on the contrary, is deadly serious about the mayhem he inflicts on us, and his time-juggling is philosophically purposeful: The filmÂ’s story, in which the two lovers snuggle and screw and argue before moving on to a rock-the-house party that Bellucci fatefully leaves alone, unwinds in reverse—an especially horrific ploy because we know what will happen. We begin in horror and end in tenderness.

Bringing Down the House
Directed by Adam Shankman; starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah.

Tears of the Sun
Directed by Antoine Fuqua; starring Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci.

Directed by Gaspar Noé; starring Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci.

The White Stuff