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Tuesday
Mar182003

Bringing Down the House, Shanghai Knights

[Our Sunday Visitor, April 6, 2003]
Bringing Down the House

There are many ways a movie can be bad. It can be badly written, badly acted, badly filmed; it can have a bad plot, a bad premise, or a bad message. "Bringing Down the House" is bad in all these conventional ways, but then invents new ways to be bad, and sets race relations back forty years. It’s the decathlon of badness.

It begins by being merely lame: in a voice-over we hear Steve Martin and Queen Latifah reading aloud emails they are sending each other. Martin is good at many things, but sincerity isn’t one of them; he gets that stretched-tight Robin Williams quality that’s simply embarrassing. My companion whispered, "I hate this already." Then the two begin to flirt, exchanging tidbits about their appearance. Martin believes he’s dealing with a petite blonde lawyer, but Latifah writes, "I have a very dark side," and the word "dark" fills the screen. It’s like the height-restriction sign outside an amusement park ride: if you find that stunningly dumb, this ride is not for you.

The premise of the film is that escaped con Latifah barges into the life of tax lawyer Martin and insists that he help her prove her innocence. It’s not, on the surface, a bad setup. But the execution is wrong, due to limping humor and problematic casting. On top of that, it trades relentlessly on negative racial stereotypes, insulting even those it aims to celebrate.

Martin isn’t bad as an uptight white guy; it’s one of his regular roles. But he is more tense than usual here, unpleasantly frantic without the absurd loopiness that can bubble over the top. Latifah is lovely, with a smooth, tranquil face like a full moon. But she’s not what this premise needs. The deal is: uptight corporate guy meets carefree, sexy big babe and gets his priorities readjusted. (The usual phrasing is: "and learns a littlelesson along the way"). But Latifah can’t portray a carefree babe: she is too serene. Maybe Whoopi Goldberg could have played this part, but Latifah moves through her scenes with self-possession. "Queen," after all, is a title she awarded herself, and it’s obviously a cultivated part of her identity. There might well be an interesting role for that character, but this is not it, because she can’t provide the balance dynamic for Martin’s character. Instead he steals the show while she functions as a straight man.

Latifah’s mission seems to be to make everything about sex all the time, which is odd because she appears to have no sexual appetites herself. Being vocal about sexuality is like a political position, and she espouses it with the single-minded humorlessness of your vegetarian uncle. This leads her to actions that are not just ill-conceived but morally and even legally questionable. Martin’s son is having trouble learning to read, so she gives him a girlie magazine. The child is shown reading aloud, "The girl had double D cups. I put my mouth…" We are supposed to think that Latifah has wisely discerned the boy would be motivated to read if given material that interests him. This scene is creepy on many levels, but try this: a woman with imposingly big breasts has given a boy a magazine about women with big breasts. Imagine it was a gay man who had given the child a magazine about gay sex. Is it still funny?

Latifah instructs Martin that he can win back his estranged wife if he offers her wild sex. (One of the few laughs in the movie is when Latifah urges him to "Talk nasty," and Martin sputters, "I’d like to kiss you a lot!") But it’s obvious that the last thing that tired, sad wife wants is nasty talk. She just wants her husband to pay attention to her, and he wins her back by throwing away a ringing cell phone instead of answering it. Latifah’s fits-all solution was wrong.

What else can we find in this cornucopia of badness? Latifah has a brutal fight with a scrawny woman, a size mismatch of a hundred pounds, and cracks a bathroom tile with her head. Martin eats a meal laced with a laxative. The sparkling, magnificent actress Joan Plowright, widow of Sir Lawrence Olivier, sits at a bar smoking a joint. Every white person is an uptight racist, and every black person is a hedonist. The one indisputably good thing about this film is that eventually, it ends.

***

Shanghai Knights

Another kind of ethnic buddy comedy was unreeling in the theater next door, "Shanghai Knights." This sequel to 2000’s "Shanghai Noon" stars Owen Wilson and the indefatigable Jackie Chan. Though he’s been making movies for decades, I had never seen one; kung-fu comedy was just about last on my list of priorities. Now I think I’ve been missing something. I was picturing violence-based humor with lots of explosions. Instead, it’s like a silent comedy. Chan is a latter-day Chaplin, whose movements are dancelike and whose humor is winsome. In a characteristic bit, he is battling guards in a treasure room and grabs a vase to throws at an attacker. To our surprise, the guard catches it and carefully sets it down: after all, his job is to protect the treasures. Chan starts handing vases to the guards, and as swiftly as they can set them down he places more in their arms, on their heads, and between their knees. Harpo Marx did things like that. Chan has a warm, kindly face that is pleasant to watch. He defeats opponents but doesn’t really hurt them; as he takes off, we see them getting up and dusting themselves off.

Owen Wilson plays his buddy-we won’t say "sidekick," because that’s an ongoing argument between the characters. Wilson is a new comic actor, known for his dramatically broken nose and shaggy blond hair. A Texan with California-dude style, Wilson has an ingratiating voice, fairly high-pitched with a pleading tone, kind of like Jimmy Stewart’s. It’s the voice of a youngest child trying to be heard over siblings. An unusual voice is a great asset for a comic actor-just ask Jerry Lewis.

"Shanghai Knights" is a great deal more innocent than "Bringing Down the House." It seems to come from an earlier era, when "naughty" meant buxom women giving a come-hither look. It’s free of sarcasm and ugliness, and the racial joking (Asian-Caucasian) is sweet-natured. Escape the collapsing "House" for this breath of fresh air.

***

Video Club

Watch Luke and Owen Wilson in "The Royal Tennenbaums," a quirky comedy from the director of "Rushmore." The odd storyline will prompt plenty of conversation, but be sure to notice these talented brothers. You’ll be seeing more of them.

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