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With: Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, Jean Smart, Kimberly J. Brown, Angus T. Jones, Missi Pyle, Michael Rosenbaum, Betty White, Steve Harris, Jim Haynie
Written by: Jason Filardi
Directed by: Adam Shankman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, sexual humor and drug material
Running Time: 105
Date: 03/07/2003

Bringing Down the House (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'House' Is Not a Home for Latifah

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Long ago, comic book companies used to publish "team-up" comics, in which Batman or Superman or Spider-Man would have an adventure with a super-guest star. Either it was with some second-tier guest who could not carry his or her own book, or a slam-bang double bill of two superstars for the price of one.

And it was always fun to see what ludicrous leap of logic the writers would take in order to get the two heroes together.

Either way, the "team-up" was a cheap way to get more bang for the buck and to appeal to two different audiences with the same product. The new film Bringing Down the House takes the same tack by teaming up Steve Martin and current Oscar nominee Queen Latifah.

The plot has Latifah as an escaped convict who was framed for armed robbery. She has met tax lawyer Martin in an online chat room and convinced him that she was a white lawyer. Arriving in person, she cons Martin into helping her clear her name. In the meantime, of course, she helps the uptight, divorced Martin get a new lease on life and learn to loosen up.

First-time screenwriter Jason Filardi and director Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner) understand that the movie has to appeal to two fan bases. So Bringing Down the House comes packed with old-fashioned "homeboy" humor and some stiff, clueless white guy humor. Neither one goes to any kind of extreme so as not to alienate the other side.

In other words, black people will get a hoot out of Queen Latifah trying to teach white guys how to dance and white guys who have maybe seen one or two episodes of "The Bernie Mac Show" will laugh at the even whiter white guys who try to talk "black" and can't manage it. (Using words like "honky.")

Still, in order to mix properly, the whole shebang hurtles backwards in time about forty years to re-create a plot and situations right out of a Doris Day comedy. In one absolutely unbearable scene, Latifah is forced to dress up as a maid to accommodate a rich, racist old lady (Joan Plowright) whom Martin is trying to woo as a business partner.

In addition, Betty White play's Martin's neighbor, another racist character whom Martin constantly kowtows to.

Believe it or not, the movie does manage a few very funny scenes, mostly involving Eugene Levy as Martin's law partner. Levy falls immediately for the sexy Latifah and suddenly learns how to speak her language. ("You got me straight trippin', boo.") Levy plays his scenes sincerely and with a winning tenderness so that we can't help siding with him.

Latifah proves that her Oscar nomination is no fluke. She has it all: she's sexy, warm, funny, and has an explosive screen presence. It's too bad that the filmmakers wimped out by not giving her a real screen romance. Instead they make her an intimidating powerhouse who likes to beat the stuffing out of anyone who gets in her way.

As for Martin, he shows signs of getting older, doing age jokes for the first time, and his memorably funny quips are fewer and farther between. Remember, "I was born a poor black child," from The Jerk? Why doesn't Bringing Down the House have anything that daring?

One of Martin's funniest bits -- coming home drunk and flirting with Latifah -- is ruined by the usual, stupid, "neighbor walking in at the wrong moment" joke.

Director Shankman ruins a lot of gags with his ill timing, brain-dead cutting and uninspired staging. Still, Bringing Down the House runs circles around the horrid Wedding Planner thanks to the talent involved.

It's time for Latifah to graduate from team-ups into the big time. If only Hollywood had the courage to really embrace her.

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