Comic spirit and “Bringing Down the House”Comedy has existed with the human spirit as far back as humans began writing the first plays and stories. Comedy and laughing at other peoples’ situations has always been a very good way to tell an entertaining story. Yet, at the same time, it can be an effective way to share lessons about life and the human condition. The “comic spirit” takes many forms throughout human civilization and several classic examples can be seen in Roman and Greek comedies. Greek comedies often create humor from the conflicts created by stereotypes and imbalances. For example, the play Lisistrata has a main character who is a woman who tries to stop the Peloponnesian War by convincing all the women of Athens to stop having sex with their husbands. Taking place during a period when women did not have power in society (compared to men), this Greek comedy used the imbalances of women to create a funny story while at the same time as making a statement against war. A more modern comedy that uses imbalances and stereotypes to create humor is the movie “Bringing Down the House” starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah. The humor in this movie is created by the use of multiple stereotypes, imbalances and ultimate role reversals of a white, wealthy male and a black, ex-convict female who first meet each other in an Internet chat room. There are also contrasts between young and old people. Although the imbalances and stereotypes throughout the movie create funny situations, it may have a negative side effect because it takes advantage of racial, gender and age stereotypes, which may be insulting or hurtful to some people, just to get a laugh.
The story begins with Steve Martin’s character, Peter Sanderson, chatting online with someone who he thinks is a pretty, blonde lawyer. When he finally arranges to meet her for a “first date,” he is shocked to find out that the blonde lawyer turns out to be a black ex-convict named Charlene (played by Queen Latifah) who wants Peter to help prove her innocence from being set up in a bank robbery that sent her to prison for four years.
The movie uses several elements of imbalance and stereotypes to create humorous situations in the story. For example, there is contrast between Peter and Charlene. On the surface in the beginning of the movie Peter seems to be a regular a white male with a successful, upper middle class lifestyle. He lives in a nice home in a nice neighborhood, drives a new Mercedes and has two normal looking kids. Charlene, on the other hand, is still wearing her prison outfit when she first meets Peter. We don’t know if she is telling the truth about her innocence or if she is trying to take advantage of Peter.
The humor in the early part of the movie is around Charlene’s interference in Peter’s life and his attempts to hide her true identity from people he knows. For example, Charlene invites her friends to Peter’s home for a big house party. When Peter finds out after coming back from work, he kicks everyone out just in time before his neighbor, played by Betty White, wonders if she heard some kind of disturbance in the neighborhood. Peter has to lie and pretend nothing happened. Later, Peter goes to work and tries to win the business of a new client, an elderly, wealthy lady named Mrs. Arness (played by Joan Plowright). Charlene shows up in his workplace and Peter has to explain to Mrs. Arness who Charlene is. He makes up a story by saying that Charlene is a nanny and is taking care of his son and daughter. Charlene promises to help Peter and pretend to be the nanny if he promises to help her prove her innocence. This concept of hiding a person’s identity or trying to prevent others from seeing the reality is a very common technique in humor. It creates funny situations where the main character tries very hard to hide the truth.
As the story continues, we see that Peter’s life is not as successful as it seems on the surface. Although he appears to be successful in his career, he is less successful in his relationships with his family members. This is why he is divorced and he does not have a strong relationship with his two children, Sarah and Georgey (at least in the beginning of the movie). He does not even know, for example, that his daughter sneaks out of the house at night to go partying with friends. He drives by his old home and seems to miss his wife and his old life before he got divorced. In contrast, Charlene becomes more of the caring parent figure as the movie moves forward. For example, when Peter’s daughter, Sarah, is at a party and calls for help, Charlene is the one who goes to the party and beats up the “boyfriend” who made Sarah cry and makes him apologize to her. Charlene also teaches Georgey, Peter’s son, how to read. Finally, Charlene shows Peter that his kids need a father to be there for them and in a few funny scenes teaches him how to dance, loosen up, and even how to flirt with a woman. These scenes create a type of role reversal because we see Peter start to loosen up more and while Charlene becomes more of a regular family member.
The use of role imbalance to create humor is also seen in several other side characters. For example, Peter’s ex-wife is dating a very young man – in fact Peter’s former caddy. Her sister, Ashley, on the other hand, always dates very old men because she is after their money. In one silly scene, Ashley is spoon feeding her new companion, a very old man in a wheel chair. In many funny scenes, Peter’s co-worker at the law firm, Howie (played by Eugene Levy), is a white man attracted to Charlene who uses black, urban slang and other phrases in a very non-black accent.
Although the use of imbalance and stereotypes creates a few funny scenes in the movie, there are other uses of stereotypes that create a negative effect. The move tries to create humor by making fun of race, gender, age and social class differences. These areas have become sensitive issues in our society today because people try to encourage equality and not discriminate. Some of the humor might be offensive. For example, Betty White’s character is Peter’s nosy neighbor. She makes some rude comments hearing “negro” when Charlene throws the house party in Peter’s home. She also says she is concerned about minorities moving into her neighborhood by saying that the only Hispanics that she wants to see in the area are those who “carry leaf blowers.” This seems to be a very racist and insensitive remark about immigrant laborers such as workers from Mexico who make a living as lawn maintenance and landscaping workers. Additionally, the scene where Mrs. Arness invites herself to Peter’s home for dinner, talks about how Charlene’s cooking reminds her of her childhood and their black servant and then sings an old slavery song about being sold to the master is a little uncomfortable to watch.
The way the movie portrays other blacks is generally negative. Many of the scenes with blacks involve gang members and drug use. We originally see Charlene as an ex-convict who is blamed for bank robbery. Charlene’s ex-boyfriend, Widow, is a gang leader who threatens Peter’s life and is responsible for framing Charlene. He hangs out at a club with other gang member figures and drug users.
Older people are also used to create humor through stereotypes and role reversals. But the humor may also be offensive to some people. Older characters like Mrs. Arness and Peter’s neighbor are treated like arrogant and insensitive people who don’t have a connection with young people or with minorities. But when Peter forces Mrs. Arness to come with him the club to make an offer to settle things with her ex-boyfriend, there are some funny scenes of Mrs. Arness, a rich, elderly lady, getting “high” on marijuana (offered by two men at the bar) and dancing on the table because she is drunk.
Several times we see humor created when there is a role reversal or when characters talk, act or behave in a way that is different than what you would expect. Even Peter’s character makes this change when he dresses up in urban, hip-hop clothes that he buys from a guy on the street and starts talking in a version of hip-hop language just to get into Widow’s nightclub and blend in. Also, as mentioned earlier, the character Howie uses hip-hop jive to express his attraction towards Charlene and at the very end of the movie, she converts his hair into dreadlocks. These racial, age and social class stereotypes are meant to create humor (for example, seeing a white guy dress up and talk like a black person or an old lady act hip, and youthful). The humor is somewhat effective, but is reduced by the lack of sensitivity to viewers who may be offended and insulted by the racial and other types of stereotyping. The movie perpetuates stereotypes that some people may find surprising that it is still allowed to be used in this modern age. Older white characters all seem to be racist and young black people seem to be criminals.
On a higher level, the story talks about change and acceptance. There is a change that Peter goes through in realizing that he is missing out on being a father and taking care of his children. He also realizes that he still loves his wife and wants to try building the relationship again. Also, he changes his impressions about Charlene and realizes that she is not a criminal. The story could have been a more effective if the type of change that the characters go through were a bit more real, not just on the surface and something that everyone can relate to. The movie seems to say that in order to be accepted by black people, white people have to dress up and talk like African-Americans. This is a simplistic view of acceptance and doesn’t seem realistic. In the real world, it is difficult for people to change and accept others who are not like them. It takes an understanding of how other people think and what they believe in. This requires spending a lot of time talking and learning about each other. To simply act and dress up like someone else will not really help people understand each other. There are other funny movies, such as “Trading Places,” “Freaky Friday” and “Six Degrees of Separation,” that do a better job of showing characters dealing with differences in race, age and social class, but in a very funny way while at the same time teaching something about human life.
In summary, “Brining Down the House” tries to use the concepts of imbalance and role reversals to generate its humor. These imbalances occur on several levels between the main characters and other characters in the film to include differences between white and black people, gender, age and social class. Although there are times when this imbalance creates humor, there are many other times when the stereotyping can be seen as offensive and racist. Furthermore, there seems to be a missed opportunity to teach the audience lessons about change and acceptance of others when the story is based on characters that go through unrealistic changes.