I Thought I Heard a Negro
Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) leads a hectic, unfulfilling, and utterly conventional life. A tax attorney who tends to bring his work home, Paul’s divorced, jealous that his wife Kate (the terrific Jean Smart again reduced to inanity) has a new, much younger boyfriend, and missing his kids, Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown) and Georgey (Angus T. Jones). And so, like any socially inept professional, he seeks companionship on the internet: the very first moments in Bringing Down the House have him typing away to “lawyer girl,” whom he met in a lawyers’ chat room and hopes to meet f2f, soon.
Enter Oscar nominee and executive producer Queen Latifah, here playing the bodacious Charlene. Arriving on Paul’s doorstep wearing shorts and shirt tails tied up, she explains that, yes, she did leave out a few details about her background, like, for instance, she’s not tall and blond as the picture she sent suggested, and she’s not quite a lawyer. In fact, she’s an ex-convict who did her legal studying while incarcerated for a felony robbery she didn’t commit. She wants Paul to help her clear her name so she can get on with her life. More or less reasonably (as she’s more or less lied to him), he throws her out.
Not one to take no for an answer, especially from a “rude motherfucker,” Charlene starts a ruckus on Paul’s perfectly appointed lawn, accusing him of abandoning her and little “Kareem,” who knows he has a “white daddy.” Paul panics when his whiter-than-white neighbor, Mrs. Kline (Betty White), who happens to be his boss’ sister, emerges from her home, with curlers and golf club, worrying, “I thought I heard a Negro!” Paul hustles Charlene back inside, and it’s not long before, despite his best efforts to chase her off, she’s ensconced in his daily life, playing “nanny” for his kids, inviting her rowdy friends over for parties, visiting his office and crashing his country club luncheon date with that hoary lawyer-executive-doctor plot device, the Important Client, here named Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright).
Paul works hard to keep Charlene a secret (in order to demonstrate to his employer that “there’s no instability in my home”). Cultures clash, escapades ensue. When Sarah sneaks off to a party and is too scared to tell her dad, Charlene rescues her from a threatening boyfriend by dangling him, Suge-style, off a balcony; she teaches slow learner Georgey to read a sex magazine; and instructs only-slightly-less-slow learner Paul how to dance with his hips thrusting, “ride” his sex partner, and enjoy his children. She also offers a few object lessons: she reveals that she talks and looks the way she does by conscious choice, not because she’s “ignorant” (this would Paul’s schooling on racial stereotyping). And she convinces him not to brownnose anyone, including his boss and Mrs. Arness (in one especially irksome scene, she plays maid while Mrs. A. sings an old plantation song, once sung by one of her favorite childhood servants).
Such unpleasantness aside, the movie marks Latifah’s first starring role, one she had some say in shaping. And goodness knows, everyone’s happy to see Dana Owens doing so fabulously well, holding it down for hiphop at the Grammys, choosing her gown for the Oscars, leading what appears an altogether conventional celebrity’s life. That she’s come to this point so many years after her breakout role in Set It Off (we might only imagine the typecasting in the scripts sent to her), surviving the death of her brother and an arrest for gun and marijuana possession is all to her credit. Everything is good for La. If we’re lucky, the (likely) success of Bringing Down the House will lead to more clout for her.
That said, as directed by Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner), the movie never rises above the obvious, in pacing or revelation. It’s like an episode of Bewitched, or maybe I Dream of Jeannie, only longer, and with a feisty black woman instead of a white witch or a genie: the point is that the uptight white guy will loosen up, “find his balls,” cherish the innate wisdom of his new woman friend, and stop competing with the smarmy guy at the office (Smallville‘s Michael Rosenbaum, much drearier with hair). But where the witch and the genie were joined in matrimony with their mousy men, Charlene is only in place to ensure that the white couple is reunited.
Still, Charlene comes out on top in this arrangement, by not having to share a happy ending with the terminally clueless Paul. Instead, she wins the heart of Howie (Eugene Levy), not nearly so uptight as his best friend Paul, and unafraid to pledge his troth with respect for her cultural specifics: “You got me straight trippin’ boo!” (the promo-ready line that Levy notes will now haunt him the rest of his life). This new love allows her to cast off, at last, her heavily tattooed ex, Widow (Steve Harris, in a role more painfully inane than Jean Smart’s: essentially, he’s called on to look thuggish and threatening, shift his weight, and bluster).
Mrs. Arness is no less trite, of course, and neither is the curler-headed neighbor lady. As Latifah has said repeatedly in interviews with the likes of Entertainment Tonight, it’s a movie where folks are supposed to “have fun.” Laughing at stereotypes can be fun. It can also be tiresome. By the time Charlene and crew haul the unbearable Mrs. Arness down to The Down Low, one of those movie-style basement dance clubs/gangsta dens, the whole clashing cultures business has been quite run into the ground. You may be happy that Paul has absorbed important lessons and even that the rich white lady will be induced to tolerance, but what they’ve really learned is that all the stereotypes they might have seen on tv or in the movies, or in their own feverish dreams, are indeed embodied and on the street.