ARE FILM CRITICS BRINGING DOWN THE WRONG HOUSE?

CRITIC DOCTOR EXAMINES: Nick Digilio (wgnradio.com), Leonard Maltin (Hot Ticket), Erik Childress (hollywoodbitchslap.com), Jeffrey Westhoff (Northwest Hearld), Carrie Rickey (Philadelphia Inquirer), Ed Gonzalez (slantmagazine.com), Kevin Carr (filmthreat.com), Bob Strauss (dailynews.com), James Berardinelli (reelviews.net), Norm Schrager (filmcritic.com), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Rob Thomas (Capital Times), Nell Minow (moviemom.com)

* * * * out of 5 stars

When I finished reading film reviews on the movie “Bringing Down the House,” I was shocked! Film critics misunderstood this movie more than any other film I’ve covered since I began writing this column. Well, the Critic Doctor is in and it’s time for surgery. Major surgery!

“Bringing Down the House” is a comedy about Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin), a lonely, workaholic tax attorney who meets a female online, Charlene (Queen Latifah). He sets up a date after she emails him a misleading photo of herself as a white, blonde haired woman. When she shows up at his house, turns out she has dark hair – and black everything! Charlene, an escape convict, tricked Peter so she could convince him to help prove she is innocent of a crime. Humor erupts in this story as Peter gets a big lesson in black culture while trying to dodge white racists to help Charlene. The movie pokes fun at racism, but many film critics just didn’t get it.

Nick Digilio (Radio 720 WGN Chicago) responded to my email on his March 16th, Sunday night radio show (Nick at Night) after I disagreed with his scathing commentary on “Bringing Down the House.” Nick said, “Herb Kane from Criticdoctor.com just sent me an email supporting ‘Bringing Down the House’ and saying that it was an attack on racism and he thought it was funny. Herb! Baby! Put down the, uh, put down the uh, Johnny Black (laughter), put down the Johnny Walker Black my friend, or the Johnny Walker Red, or whatever bourbon you’re drink’n or whatever Scotch you’re drink’n. Holy Cow…”

Hey Nick, baby! I enjoyed your thought-provoking radio talk show on movies, but even Johnny Walker would agree with me on this one. And by the end of this column, you might agree with me, too!

Leonard Maltin also hated the movie and said on his TV show “Hot Ticket”: “I was offended by the movie! People of any color, any ethnicity, any racial background could be offended by this movie. It sets back race relations and tolerance a good 20 to 30 years.”

It doesn’t set anything back, Leonard! The racist characters in this movie are supposed to OFFEND! Listen – if we are NOT offended by racial comments in this film, then there is something wrong with us. But because this movie is a COMEDY, we are able get past the stereotypes and laugh at the bigots because the jokes on them! In the end, we’re not offended because the message speaks out against racism. Get it?

Erik Childress (hollywoodbitchslap.com) said, “It ranks among the most insultingly racist films ever made with nary a shred of comic possibility…this is a movie for stupid ignorant white people…. If you’re not a critic and just a regular moviegoer, do yourself a favor and don’t admit that you like this movie in my presence, because I’ll kick you in the shins and spit on you.”

You know what, Erik? I’m thrilled you hate racism. Thrilled! But you just don’t get it. This movie isn’t FOR stupid white people; it’s ABOUT stupid white people! In fact, some negative reviews I’ve read seem to twist that storyline in order to prove a different point. Childress is no exception.

Childress points out the scene where Peter first meets Charlene at his house for a date. Expecting the blonde woman from the photo, Peter opens the front door to welcome Charlene – ready to offer her a glass of champagne. Just before he lays eyes on her, he begins to say, “I hope you like cham… (then he sees her!)…poo.” Childress writes, “This wordplay from bubbling alcohol to a foul smelling brown substance is more than just coincidence in this movie.”

For the love of God, Erik! This comment had ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with a “foul smelling brown substance!” It had everything to with Charlene’s funky, dark hair and wordplay on CHAMPAGNE & SHAMPOO. The only foul smelling substance here is your wild imagination!

Jeffrey Westhoff (Northwest Herald) said, “The jokes are in increasingly bad taste. They reinforce stereotypes rather than collapse them. All African-Americans in the story are ex-cons or criminals who hang out in rap clubs. They also appear to be unemployed. If not, then they’re willing to skip out of work to attend Charlene’s impromptu pool party.”

What? The only way her black friends could get together at an impromptu pool party is if they “skip work” or are “unemployed?” It appears you also have a wild imagination, Jeff. Did it ever occur to you that Charlene hasn’t seen her friends since prison and they have damn good reason to come over at moment’s notice? Did you ever think some of her friends just got off of work while others had the day off? You read more into it because you’re offended by the stereotypes in this film!

You see, the filmmakers believe we (the audience) are grounded in reality, so they use stereotypes to bring forth comedy thinking we (the audience) are mature enough to take a joke. Carrie Rickey (Philadelphia Inquirer) got it right: “There are sequences in the film – as when Charlene cooks a meal for the family – that tread perilously close to Hattie McDaniel territory. Making fun of the stereotype or reinforcing it? From the tongue visible in Latifah’s cheek, she signals that it’s all in fun.”

Ed Gonzalez (slantmagazine.com) said, “I don’t know what’s worse: the crazy ass white people who made the film or the crazy ass white people it’s most likely to appeal to.”

Crazy ass white people who made the film? Are you referring to Queen Latifah, Ed? After all, she not only stars in this movie, she’s a producer – and she’s African American! Latifah obviously understands that the movie makes fun of white racists in the same way America’s 70’s generation laughed at Archie Bunker in “All In The Family” – confronting bigotry by making fun of those guilty of it. Bunker was always the butt-of-the-joke! This movie’s anti-racial message appeals to me, even though some crazy ass critics like you JUST DON’T GET IT. Thank God other critics got it right:

Director Adam Shankman expertly juggles racial issues and slapping-the-knee comedy in this hilarious ride. Where many films like this fail by becoming overly serious when they touch on racial aspects, ‘Bringing Down the House’ manages to keep the air light.” Kevin Carr (filmthreat.com)

– “The result is a gut-busting, stereotype-busting slapstick comedy.” Carrie Rickey (Phildelphia Enquirer)

– “It’s obvious, formulaic, often very funny and oddly cheerful as it goes about debunking prejudice by playing into it.” Bob Strauss (dailynews.com)

– “Some of ‘Bringing Down the House”s biggest laughs come from the way in which it lampoons racial stereotyping and intolerance.” James Berardinelli (reelviews.net)

– “Martin and Latifah make for a good high-concept Hollywood odd couple that keeps all races and ages laughing.” Norm Schrager (filmcritic.com)

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) understood the movie’s motive including one scene where Peter tries to get Charlene to talk like white people. Ebert said, “Charlene can talk like a perfect middle-class lady, as she demonstrates, but the movie’s point of pride is that she shouldn’t have to.”

Ebert did launch an unwarranted complaint that Peter and Charlene should have ended up together romantically: “Why, I asked myself, is their mutual sexual attraction disguised as roughhouse, when they are the stars and movie convention demands that they get it on? There isn’t a shred of chemistry between Latifah and Levy…”

What are you talking about, Roger? I would have been extremely angry if Charlene didn’t end up with Howie (Eugene Levy) and if Peter didn’t go back to his kids and ex-wife Kate (Jean Smart). Yeah, this is a comedy and so what? Peter still cared for Kate and he demonstrated this by driving past her house every day. And Howie? What a nut! He fell in love with Charlene at first sight, romancing her with lines like, “You got me straight trippin’, boo.” Charlene even gave him a cute nickname: Freak Boy. Levy and Latifah stole every scene they were in together – and by film’s end, Howie deserved Charlene.

Forget conventional movie crap, Roger. The characters were teamed up just fine and there was never any sexual attraction between Peter and Charlene anyway. They simply grew together as friends and that doesn’t always have to involve sex.

Rob Thomas (Capital Times) got it right: “Latifah is just a magnetic performer on screen, easily able to stand toe to toe with Martin. She’s confident, funny and sexy, and her character and Martin’s form a friendship that’s surprisingly sweet and believable.”

We’ve seen this type of racial humor years ago and it worked. “Bringing Down the House” is outdated, but still managed to entertain. Steve Martin, Queen Latifah and Eugene Levy deserve their due thanks. The movie has many funny moments while showing how silly it is to let skin color interfere with our personal and professional relationships.

Nell Minow (moviemom.com) summed the movie up best: “Some people may be offended by some of the racist language and stereotypes, but the movie is clear that it is offensive and stupid to be bigoted and cowardly and foolish to be silent when those views are expressed.”

Don’t worry, folks. I’m not going to kick you in the shins and spit on you if you don’t like this movie. I may disagree with some critics on the racial elements of this film, but even I understand everyone’s good intentions. “Bringing Down the House” inspires us all to confront the issue of racism and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, many film critics REACTED to the stereotypes and racial commentary instead of RESPONDING to the film’s overall message.

They just don’t get it!

– CRITIC DOCTOR




Posted on April 1, 2003 in Features by

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