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House Party (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on March 10, 2014

High school student Play (Christopher Martin) is throwing a party while his parents are out of town.  Bilal (Martin Lawrence) is DJ’ing, and Kid (Christopher Reid) is hoping to get on the mike and try out his latest lyrics… and also hook up with either Sharane (A.J. Johnson) or Sidney (Tisha Campbell).  But in the cafeteria he gets in a scuffle with three bullies: Stab, Pee-Wee and Zilla (Paul Anthony, Bowlegged Lou and B-Fine, known collectively as R&B production team Full Force).  When his Pop (Robin Harris) learns about the trouble at school, Kid gets grounded.  Now he’s got to sneak out of the house and make it to the party and back while dodging Stab and his crew, his father, and a pair of racist cops (Barry Diamond, Mike Pniewski).

What do we really mean when we talk about “guilty pleasures”?  The meaning is clear when the pleasure is something that’s clearly harmful to you: a cigarette, or a box of Twinkies.  It gives you pleasure despite — or maybe because of — the knowledge that you shouldn’t be doing it.  But movies can’t really be harmful, at least to your health (the psychological scars of something disturbing is a can of worms that doesn’t need to be opened for this).  So when you say a movie is a guilty pleasure, what you’re saying is that it’s a poor product that you like anyway… even if some voice inside you is telling you that you shouldn’t.  Perhaps the happiest among us are those who don’t even use the term, with the philosophy of “if I like it, it’s good”.  The topic opens up a number of age-old arguments about what makes a film “good” or how we separate terms like “best” and “favorite”.  Besides, who am I to say what makes a movie good or bad?

Oh, that’s right… I’m a movie critic.  Or pretending to be one, anyway.  Well, I can point to at least one thing that makes this film bad: the jail scene, where Kid has to rap his way out of getting sexually violated.  Besides being homophobic to the extreme, it makes no sense.  This is a holding cell, not a penitentiary.  I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure dudes don’t get raped in holding cells that often.  It’s offensive both in its bigoted content and its sloppy storytelling.  One bad scene doesn’t make a bad movie, but it’s certainly difficult to prop up House Party as a film of exceptional quality.  It has no artistic aspirations, no visual finesse (although the dance-off scene features some fine camera choreography), nothing profound to say, no intriguing narrative techniques.  The social commentary on police harassment of the black community is well-intentioned but suffers from the broad characterizations of the two cops.

And yet, this movie has given me great pleasure ever since its release in 1990.  For one thing, it came at the right time to be highly quoted by me and my friends.  It’s loaded with lines that became part of our everyday vernacular, whether appropriate for a situation or just as a non sequitur we knew would get a laugh.  “Follow the drip, follow the drip!”  “I shoulda never married that white woman.”  “Play, don’t play!”  “I don’t give a damn if Marvin Gaye gonna be there!”  “Every little step you take is gonna be around this bedroom tonight!”  “My rhymes!”  “Burger King?”  “Girl, you’re so soft… like my hush-puppies.”  “Yes, you do have big ones, baby.”  If you haven’t seen the movie, these lines probably won’t seem funny to you, but they were guaranteed at least a smile between me and my pals.  So can we say the movie has a witty script?  I think so.  It’s not Paddy Chayefsky or David Mamet, but it’s not trying to be (just drawing the comparison is uncomfortable… snobby at best, racist at worst).  Not every gag is a winner, but I do think there’s a smartness to the writing… few of the jokes feel cheap, not even the one or two scatological ones.

There’s a sweetness to the movie as well.  Kid, with his towering hairstyle, is remarkably affable… he’s the kind of underdog you delight in rooting for.  The friendship dynamics are really nicely done as well.  Kid and Play, Sharane and Sidney… they don’t always have each other’s backs.  They’re even rivals at times.  But there’s real love and affection there, and it’s how a lot of friendships work.  They push each other to achieve more, and in doing so, the rivalries actually draw them closer together with mutual respect.  The five youngsters (all actually in their mid-20’s at the time) at the heart of this film are truly endearing, even Lawrence and especially Reid and Campbell.  Besides the appearance of Full Force (who fulfill their bad guy roles well enough, although Lou’s chipmunky voice is grating), the members of Groove B. Chill (that is, Gene “Groove” Allen and Daryl “Chill” Mitchell) both have solid supporting roles, with Mitchell even going on to a successful acting career.  And there’s a cameo by George Clinton that almost forgives his appearance in the godawful PCU a few years later, plus an amusing turn by John Witherspoon as an irate neighbor.  Overshadowing even the best of this cast, however, is the wonderful Robin Harris, who reportedly improvised most of his hilarious lines.  Just starting to find his niche in film, television and stand-up comedy, we lost the great Harris far, far too soon.  And it’s his role as “Pop” that I will always associate him with the most, even more than his brilliant comedy album or his role in an “objectively” “better” movie, Do The Right Thing (I use sarcastic quotation marks here, but let’s be honest… DTRT is in my top 100 and House Party isn’t).  So in addition to a sharp script and strong emotional core, we can say the casting is really good.  One can’t imagine the film with its original intended stars, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, being any better.  Will Smith has his charms, but they’re not the lovable underdog charms of Reid, and I can’t picture Jeffrey Townes pulling off the devilish debonair that Martin conveys (or would he have appeared in the Lawrence role? I don’t know).

And let’s get back to that social commentary for a minute.  Maybe the two white cops are a little broad, but it is a comedy after all, and besides… the portrayals probably aren’t that far removed from reality, if at all.  No matter how many black friends I grew up with, I can never know what it’s like for a black person to be stopped by white police for simply walking down the street in my own neighborhood.  It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if some of the cops were this transparently, overtly racist.  I mean, really… of course some of them are.  And it affects how people go about their everyday lives.  As the film shows, even the more “respectable” members of the black community (i.e., the ones with money) have to cope with this nonsense, and do not feel the least bit safer because of it.  And one should note that while the Full Force bullies get their comeuppance, there’s no such karmic retribution for the police.  They get away with it, scot-free.  And one should also note how responsible these kids are.  Play may be having a party behind the backs of his parents, but he respects their property and kicks everyone out when his guests start crossing the line (but FYI Play, it’s super easy to fix a toilet).  Drinking is frowned upon.  Safe sex is condoned.  Kid does his homework diligently, and despite sneaking out, still aspires to be home by curfew.  As an adult, it’s refreshing to see kids — and oh man, this sounds so square — partying responsibly.  Likewise, Pop shows strong parental instincts… when he makes a hurtful remark to his son, he instantly apologizes (although the beating we hear him administer over the closing credits is uncomfortable, despite Harris’s funny remarks between slaps of the belt).

So, do I still feel “guilty” about the pleasures I derive from House Party?  That jail scene does make me cringe, and I can’t say the movie is going to change anyone’s life or anything.  But it’s really not a “bad” movie as far as I can see.  It’s funny and full of energy, some great music and dance, and characters I love to watch.  It’s got heart.  Someone coming to it fresh obviously won’t have as much nostalgia invested in it as I do (this has gotta be at least my 7th time watching it), but I’m not ashamed to recommend it.  It’s warm and fluffy… like a buttermilk biscuit.  Rating: Great (90)

IMDb
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