Toothlessly trite and inundated with a relentlessly chirpy elevator-music score, "Bringing Down the House" is a ghetto-woman-in-the-ritzy-white-suburbs culture-clash comedy sanitized to oblige the same middle-aged white folks that are the butts of most of its jokes.
It's about an uptight, overworked, miserably divorced tax attorney (a hammy yet vanilla Steve Martin) whose life is turned upside down when a woman he'd flirted with in a legal-forum online chatroom turns up on his doorstep for a date not looking anything like the sophisticated, young white lawyer she'd pretended to be. She is, in fact, a feisty, girthy, street-smart spitfire straight outta Compton (and played with relish by Queen Latifah) who has just escaped from prison and wants Martin's help proving her innocence on an erroneous armed robbery charge.
The movie would have little plot if these two didn't spend the next five reels trying to hoodwink Martin's neighbors and law partners into thinking the loud-and-proud Latifah is a nanny or a maid -- telling lie on top of outrageous lie when a simple variation on the truth ("She's an acquaintance that I'm helping with a case") would have sufficed.
First-time screenwriter Jason Filardi concocts some flimsy excuse for Latifah to move in with Martin (so she can bond with his kids and help him chill out) and stretches, stretches, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s the premise to imply that Martin's job and a contract with a haughty rich client (Joan Plowright) will be in jeopardy if anyone finds out.
The film's idea of being risqué, you see, is to make Martin's neighbors and law partners -- and most other white characters -- cartoonishly racist. ("If they're in this neighborhood and not carrying a leaf blower...," sniffs Betty White, as the busybody old broad across the street.)
Directed by Adam Shankman (helmer of the contemptible Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy "The Wedding Planner"), "Bringing Down the House" does manage to scrounge up a few comedic gems. Nebbishy Eugene Levy is a hoot as Martin's best friend who has the hots for Latifah, declaring his love in hilarious white-guy attempts at street slang ("You got me straight trippin', boo!").
After proving herself a show-stopping diva in "Chicago" (to the tune of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), here Latifah proves herself also to be a natural comedienne with a magnetic, pugnacious downtown attitude. Her fisticuffs with a catty WASP in a country club locker room is the flick's funniest scene -- until it turns into sloppy slapstick with the other woman doing ridiculous aerobics-class dances every time she lands a punch.
Martin has his moments too. In fact, a couple scenes hark back to his cutting-edge comedy pinnacle as a wild and crazy guy. But Shankman fails to recognize a good thing when he sees it and puts his comic emphases in all the wrong places. Steve Martin doing pelvic thrusts with avocados down the front of his pants is funny. Steve Martin trying to pass for a gansta at a South Central nightclub, not so much.
Between its predictable, telegraphed laughs and its autopilot plot (Martin wins back his ex-wife not because of anything he says or does, but just because it's happy-ending time), "House" is an unfortunate but inevitable failure. The only good to come of it will be that it should substantiate the talented and appealing Queen Latifah's acting career.
Run time: 105 mins
In Theaters: Friday 7th March 2003
Box Office USA: $132.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $132.7M
Distributed by: Touchstone Pictures
Production compaines: Touchstone Pictures, Hyde Park Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 34%
Fresh: 50 Rotten: 98
IMDB: 5.5 / 10
Director: Adam Shankman
Starring: Steve Martin as Peter Sanderson, Queen Latifah as Charlene Morton, Eugene Levy as Howie Rottman, Joan Plowright as Virginia Arness, Jean Smart as Kate Sanderson, Kimberly J. Brown as Sarah Sanderson, Missi Pyle as Ashley, Angus T. Jones as Georgey Sanderson, Michael Rosenbaum as Todd Gendler, Betty White as Mrs. Kline, Steve Harris as Widow, Jim Haynie as Ed Tobias, Aengus James as Mike, Jernard Burks as Widow's Bodyguard, Bronzell Miller as Widow's Bodyguard, Michael Ensign as Daniel Barnes
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