Monday, May 20, 2024

Whatever Wednesdays: ‘House Party’

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There’s a genre of movies known as “hang-out” movies. The term is relatively new but the genre is not. A hang-out movie is the type of movie in which you can watch with friends but still socialize. It is a type of film meant to just chill to and when it comes to hang-out movies few are as laid back and just plain cool as Reginald Hudlin’s  House Party.

I must admit to having never seen House Party until now. Many will say my life has been pooer for that. They aren’t wrong.

Hudlin imbues House Party with a laid-back vibe that says nothing is to be taken too seriously while also taking time to make some serious points under the guise of goofing around. Starring the rapping duet Kid ‘n Play, House Party is reminiscent of the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road movies. Much like those old movies, nothing much is at stake except to put on a show and get the girl.

What makes House Party so endearing though is the infectious energy of everyone involved. From Martin Lawrence as Bilal, or as his friends call him Dragon Breath, to Kid’s father Pop, played by comedian Robin Harris. Hudlin, who also wrote the script, surrounds Kid n Play with actors and comedians to help House Party run as smoothly as it does.

House Party will stop and observe Pop fix a fan-not because it’s necessary to the plot but because it allows Harris to riff on the heat. “It was so hot in here last night I could have sworn I saw the Devil sitting in the living room.” Hudlin populates the movie with what seems to be someone for every class. You have the one lines delivered by Harris, the wacky over the top comedic performances from Lawrence complemented by the legendary John Witherspoon as he leans out his bedroom window tossing out barbed insults, a one-man Statler and Waldorf as he observes with bemusement and annoyance the party going on next door.

This is one of those movies where Christopher “Kid” Robinson plays Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin plays Peter “Play” Martin.  The goal is simple: plan the party, get to the party, and then party. House Party is a story as old as cinema itself; they just usually lack the charm and unforced charm of Kid and Play.

Kid may not be a thespian but he has a likeability about him that has us on his side immediately. Maybe it’s the way we meet him in his pajamas with a nightcap that seems stuffed with a block of wood only to reveal his signature block afro. The scene plays both as an introduction of a popular entertainer to an audience familiar with him while also acting as an intro to people who may be giving the movie a shot because the critics said it was fun.

While Kid seems to be the kooky borderline surreal exaggerated caricature, Play is the fast-talking ladies’ man desperate to have a party while his parents are out of town. Oddly, unlike with Kid, there is no intro scene for him. Even weirder is that for most of the first half of the movie Kid and Play are kept apart rarely even sharing the same setting with the other.

The separation doesn’t hurt the movie, far from it. Hudlin’s restraint is rare considering most team-up movies can’t wait to get the characters together and go from there. Instead, Hudlin does something interesting he uses Kid and Play to explore class differences. He doesn’t settle for just lower and upper class either he looks at the different ways people-black people- are poor. From the overworked dad struggling to pay the bills trying to raise his kid to be better to the projects where Sydney (Tisha Campbell) picks up her friend Sharane (A.J. Johnson). Play’s house is in the suburbs in which he hides his parent’s good china.

Hudlin isn’t saying anything overt; he’s merely showing the varying degrees of black existence while also having a good time. The blackness of House Party is essential to the film’s success in that it endeavors to showcase blackness in all forms without suggesting there is anything inherently wrong with them that needs fixing or saving.

House Party came out in 1990 which is on the cusp of one decade ending and another beginning. The result is we get a kaleidoscopic clash of outfits, bright colors, grounded reality, and an eclectic mixture of music- another essential key to House Party. The soundtrack has classic hip-hop, rap, R&B, and jazz with a heaping helping of breakdancing.

Exuberance is the drive of House Party and it never really stops. But while it may be a raucous good time that doesn’t mean Hudlin isn’t serious. The movie has a running gag involving two oafish moronic white cops. But while they may be played for laughs Hudlin shows us the dangerous menace beneath their imbecility. 

An ongoing storyline involves Kid and his persistent run-in with the school bullies led by a muscle-bound hot-tempered Stab (Paul Anthony George). The bullies all are members of the R&B  and hip-hop supergroup “Full Force”. The trio essentially plays the three stooges if they were heels, chasing young Kid as he desperately tries to get to Play’s party. The four crash a party filled with well-to-do guests, catering, and a DJ.

The cops are called and the four are forced onto their knees at gunpoint. The party-goers are black but the cops are white. As much as Stab and his friends are jerks they don’t deserve this and even as the cops’ buffoonery is meant to be comedic it’s a sharp and pointed joke. The party-goers don’t want to press charges and are disgusted by how the boys are being treated.

Moments like these are the knives that poke holes into the argument of people who claim art should be or can be apolitical. House Party is for everyone with a specific eye toward a black audience but Hudlin is sure to make sure that while we have a good time we understand that being black is not something one can put on or take off like a coat. Being black means that even teenagers horsing around are in danger of being held at gunpoint by the police. Especially, when in any other movie the white teenagers, even if they were arrested, would not be made to kneel, hands behind their heads, at gunpoint.

That the scene is played for laughs is another example of what sets House Party apart from other movies like it. It is an amalgamation of different styles and senses of humor. Satirical, surreal, observational, and riffing. Some bits sound like material meant for a stand-up act but are used for the movie instead while at times the humor isn’t from what anyone is saying but merely the character itself.

Interestingly enough the house party itself is only a fraction of House Party. Soon, Pops has shown up looking for Kid. Now it becomes a mad dash for everyone involved to get home and outwit the bumbling cops and outrun Stab’s crew. 

The only major criticism I have is the gay panic humor which was as prevalent then as it is today. One scene even includes Kid in a holding cell horrified that he is about to be sexually assaulted by the other inmates and so begins to rap to save himself. It’s a rape joke wrapped in a gay joke that falls flat by today’s standards. What’s more, it’s a tired old trope in which Hudlin and Kid do little to add their own spin. It was a tired old joke even back then.

Aside from that though House Party goes down easy thanks to Hudlin and his cinematographer Peter Deming. Deming whose work includes the likes of Hollywood Shuffle, Evil Dead II, My Cousin Vinny, and Mullohand Drive manages to give a sort of effortlessly MTV style to House Party. The dance scenes feel like an 80’s music video, but the rest of the film, much like Hudlin’s script, feels like a blend of other genres. Harsh lighting in some scenes while others are bathed in shadows with the appearance of natural light. In other words, an awful lot of work went into making it seem as if it didn’t take an awful lot of work.

Hudlin entertains and delights so effortlessly that the film breezes by. Even without the nostalgia, I found myself with a silly grin on my face and having a blast. House Party is a timeless time capsule. That it is as joyous and hip as when it first debuted, is why it is the consummate hangout movie. 

Image courtesy of New Line Cinema

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