‘Bringing Down the House’ defies stereotypes of race, comedy

Ah, stereotypes. We all live by them at some point in our lives and most of us try to find ways to break them. “Bringing Down the House” is a comedy set around a few things, but the political message seems to be breaking stereotypes.

The film revolves mostly around the white, WASP-y world of Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin), a Los Angeles tax attorney. Peter is lonely, middle-aged and divorced. The film opens to him chatting online with a woman whose screen name is “Lawyergirl.” Lawyergirl is intelligent, refined and sends a picture that focuses on a thin blonde.

Peter sets up a blind dinner date at his home with Lawyergirl only to find Charlene Morton (Queen Latifah) at his door. Charlene is not blonde, but a brilliant black woman. Upon closer inspection of the picture, Peter sees Charlene in it, being escorted into a police car. Over the next few scenes, Charlene invades Peter’s life in order to gain his lawyer expertise to help her criminal case. As Charlene puts it, “I did the time, but I didn’t do the crime.” She wants her record expunged.

Charlene takes the role of nanny for Peter’s two children, Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown) and Georgey (Angus T. Jones). It seems that the only acceptable relationship that Peter can contrive between himself and Charlene is that of Charlene as his servant. Peter is pressured by his racist friends and neighbors not to see her in any other light.

Peter is learning a lot more from Charlene other than lessons about race. She teaches him how to dance, how to relate and listen to his children and, most importantly, how to win back his ex-wife, Kate (Jean Smart). While there is some sexual tension between Charlene and Peter, the real romance happens between Charlene and Howie Rosenthal (Eugene Levy), who makes several remarks about how he would like to get freaky with her.

“Bringing Down the House” has a few special moments of comedy. In one scene, Charlene fights Kate’s trampy sister, Ashley, in the country club bathroom. The two exchange some pretty nasty comments as they repeatedly knock each other across the bathroom. In another scene, Charlene tries to teach Peter how to be more aggressive in order to win back his wife. His son and uptight, nosy neighbor walk in while Charlene is in the climax of her lesson. While they are both fully clothed, all of the antics in the film cause Peter to lose a big account with Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright), a racist.

Charlene takes all of this in stride, since she has her goals set from the beginning of the movie. She wants her name cleared, and the ignorance of others won’t stop her.

I’ll admit that “Bringing Down the House” did make me laugh. Although I feared that the trailer would feature all that this film had in store for its audience, there were a few pleasant surprises. I also liked that “Bringing Down the House” generally avoided the weak plot and sappiness that most comedies fall victim to and allowed most of the story to surround itself with funny situations.

“Bringing Down the House” is no masterpiece. While I could see its purpose in fighting stereotypes, the African-Americans still lived in the inner city while the whites lived in plush suburbian mansions. The film also failed to show Charlene’s sensitive side to the racism she faced. Often times she expresses her anger violently, but we never saw the hurt that I’m sure her character felt.

Bottom Line: Hollywood can come up with a funnier and wittier way to fight modern day stereotypes.