ARTS

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March 7, 2003

Queen and Steve get jiggy

What would happen if one were to put a sassy, big-mamma soul sistah from South Central with one of those uptight alpha-male suburbanites in the same movie? That may be the operative question concerning the executives who greenlighted Bringing Down the House, with the hope of hitting the jackpot on another culture-clash comedy. But for the rest of us, there is the prospective answer that maybe despite their differences, the queen of the ghettoes and the king of the lily-white suburbs can magically unite through the parade procession that is often known as filmmaking.

The comedy, however, has just enough cynicism to steer away from such an improbable premise, even if it really espouses the belief that white folks seek to get along and hobnob with colorful black folks. Because aren't we all just the same?

What may actually be a cause for concern is the continuing trend of movies that shamelessly figure black characters as spiritual counselors eager to help out their white counterparts in their timely distress. Whoopi Goldberg comes to mind as a distant model in her convulsive turn as a mouthy psychic who brings back a misty Patrick Swayze from the grave for one last tryst with Demi Moore in Ghost. More recent exemplars include Michael Clark Dunken's urologist on death row to Tom Hanks in The Green Mile and Will Smith's mystical caddie to Matt Damon in The Legend of Bagger Vance; the movies were censured by critics for their dubious achievements in featuring black characters with even more pronounced supernatural powers.

It's no surprise, therefore, that Bringing Down the House cunningly realizes its own measures with the conventional motif of squaring off two people from opposite worlds and letting the sparks fly--or drizzle, rather--in the context of current cultural dynamics, namely, that which associates blacks with the exclusive quotients of hip and cool.

Queen Latifah plays the hapless fool, i.e. the escaped convict whom Steve Martin's white-collar lawyer mistakes for a twiggy blonde under the chat room pseudonym "lawyergirl." When the bootylicious, jive-talking Latifah actually shows up at a befuddled Martin's door, we're supposed to find this amusing under the assumption that she's the exotic creature to his upper middle-class case of normalcy. She waves around her hip-hop terminology and flashes her "ghetto-fabulous" outfits (an oxymoron, if there ever was one) until Martin feels obliged to get her off a false conviction for armed robbery under the agreement that she leave him alone.

A fair exchange it seems, although I've left out the part about Latifah being a nanny to his children, mending a relationship with his ex-wife, teaching Martin how to groove with his inner flava, and donning a maid's uniform to impress a racially insensitive client with her hollering "yassuh!" She doesn't become the spice in his life, she serves it to him. This is what one might term as oppressive humor--you can't quite laugh with the characters or at them in any spontaneous way, the only appropriate manner in which to react is to scoff at the cornucopian irreverence. To be offended would be to miss the movie's point.

As far as the film self-consciously chooses to play down to us with this kind of humor, it also neglects to become anything but a collection of stunts with a shabby storyline. A middle-aged Jewish character at one point shouts, "You got me straight trippin', Boo!" I laughed the first time it appeared in the trailer. Now I just say, "whatever."