Bringing Down the House

There’s a cluelessness about “Bringing Down the House” that is very unappealing. The premise that drives most of the action in the film is that if the uptight white lawyer’s neighbors and business associates find out he’s friends with a black woman, they will, I don’t know, stop talking to him or something. But this premise is never explained. He never says, “My friends are very racist,” or anything like that; it’s just a given that OF COURSE a white lawyer cannot have a black friend, and that disapproval of such a situation is the only conceivable reaction for normal society. The lawyer himself seems to have no problem with this.

Well, there certainly is racism in America, but I have trouble believing it’s THAT pervasive, to where ordinary people in Los Angeles — practically every person this man knows — dismiss out-of-hand the notion that white people can have black friends. I could see it in New England in the 1950s, of even some parts of the South today. But not L.A. in 2003, and not as widespread as it’s made to appear. (The woman is an ex-con, too, which seems like a far more logical reason to hide her from your friends, but that aspect is mostly disregarded.)

And so it goes in this tactless, desperate comedy directed by Adam Shankman, director of such tepid films as “The Wedding Planner” and “A Walk to Remember.” (The sitcom-level screenplay is by Jason Filardi, a first-timer.) Steve Martin plays the white guy, Peter Sanderson, a buttoned-down tax attorney recently split from his wife (Jean Smart) and too busy with work to pay attention to his kids.

He has recently been chatting online with “lawyergirl,” whom he believes to be a gorgeous blond attorney but who turns out to be — he discovers when he invites her over for a candlelit dinner — Charlene Morton (Queen Latifah), the aforementioned black woman. Seems she got framed for a robbery she didn’t commit, went to jail, got out, and now wants her lawyer friend Peter to re-open the case and clear her. For some reason, she thinks deceiving him and then taking over his house like a pest will put him in the mind of doing her favors.

Peter, however, is in the process of wooing a filthy rich new client, Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright), a ridiculously proper and snooty dowager who does not stand for shenanigans, tomfoolery OR ballyhoo, and who certainly will not look favorably upon Peter having a sassy black woman for a friend. And so Charlene gets passed off as his maid.

The maid charade leads to the most uncomfortable scene in the film, and one of the most uncomfortable scenes in any film I’ve ever viewed. Charlene is serving the family at dinner, while the kids are on their best behavior and Peter is acting especially responsible and grown-up. Mrs. Arness, who spent her early years in the South before moving to England and becoming Joan Plowright, reminisces fondly about a black maid her family had, and a quaint Negro spiritual she used to sing. And then she sings it, at length. The words: “Mama, is Massa gonna sell us today? (repeat)”

Now, in a film going for outrageous, over-the-top, abrasive humor — think “South Park,” or the works of the Farrelly Brothers — such a scene would not be out of place. In context, it would not even be offensive, because you’d have already become accustomed to such extremity.

“Bringing Down the House,” though, has a far more temperate sense of humor. It does not strive for audacity; it is senseless enough to think it is just a regular ol’ comedy about a guy who needs to learn what’s important in life. The film never realizes how absurd and impertinent it is, and it seems to have no idea why this scene might be offensive. I have little patience for a film that doesn’t know itself.

Steve Martin and Queen Latifah are both extremely talented comedians, and they occasionally wring laughs out of what would otherwise have been a laugh-free affair. Ditto Eugene Levy, deadpan as Peter’s co-worker with a thing for black women.

I mentioned that this is a film about a guy who needs to learn what’s important. What Peter basically learns is that he needs to loosen up and be, well, more black. Black people are fun-loving and carefree; white people are racist (though the film doesn’t call them that), nerdy and fussy. Here is a film that manages to be racist against blacks AND whites. That’s an impressive achievement. Unfortunately, what the film was TRYING to be was funny, and it didn’t quite accomplish that.

C- (1 hr., 45 min.; PG-13, a smattering of profanity, some fairly strong sexual innuendo, some drug use.)