More than a decade after Steve Martin lost control of his own home in Housesitter, another of his patented Poor Sap characters is in similar trouble. This time, instead of a spunky, conniving Goldie Hawn acting as unwanted tenant, a sassy, street-smart, badass Queen Latifah is movin' on up. Thankfully, Martin and Latifah make for a good high-concept Hollywood odd couple that keeps all races and ages laughing, in director Adam Shankman's speedy, funky -- and politically incorrect -- comedy.
Martin, in a plain, white guy role that's getting a bit tired, is tax attorney Peter Sanderson. He's got a fairly palatial suburban home, an ex-wife, two kids... and a chat room buddy named "lawyergirl." Peter quickly learns that making friends on the Internet can be a bitch -- his dream girl ends up being an ex-con named Charlene (Latifah), a sly loudmouth who's served time for armed robbery. Through some not-so-gentle blackmail, Charlene enlists Peter's legal aid and moves into his house and life.
Shankman (The Wedding Planner), working from an occasionally daring script from first-time writer Jason Filardi, never lets his audience get too comfortable. Although the film appears to be a fairly generic comedy, Shankman constructs two fish-out-of-water stories (one for each lead), with humor that's on the dangerous edge of being flat-out racist.
In the midst of the script's mayhem, Charlene is asked to act as both a nanny and a maid, and the resulting scenes are a farcical look at negative stereotypes of blacks in those roles. What keeps the proceedings from sliding into demeaning "yes massah" territory is that Latifah's Charlene a) knows what she's doing, b) has something to gain from her showmanship, and c) has already established herself as a bright, pompous, assured black woman.
With that confidence on her side, all the dumb racists in the movie look even more haplessly ridiculous. Betty White plays a neighbor whose blind use of the word "Negro" draws hoots from nearly everyone in the audience. Peter's excessive attempts to hide Charlene from friends and co-workers combine your standard madcap action with an uncomfortable level of shame and fear. And when the legendary Joan Plowright, playing a stuffy billionaire, passionately croons an old slave song, you know this isn't a play-it-safe comedy, and that's a good thing.
Although Martin is as funny and physical as he's ever been, and Latifah stands out as a lovable bundle of energy, the film's scene-stealer is Eugene Levy (American Pie) as Howie Rottman, a tax attorney who instantly falls for Charlene. Although Howie looks like, well, Eugene Levy, he knows the language of the streets and regularly delivers homeboy come-ons that are a scream. Aside from the instant laughs that Levy brings, the character of Howie serves an important purpose, acting as a "cool" foil to Martin's painfully unhip slice of white bread. The humor behind the concept of every black being down and every white being a geek is getting awfully old, and the character of Howie gives it a nice twist.
Bringing Down the House keeps its audience giggling and occasionally shocked. It has just enough absurdity to let Martin and a few others (including Missi Pyle, as a snobby, gold-digging blond) get silly, and it even offers a brawl that has a strong chance of picking up an MTV Movie Awards Best Fight nomination. In a magazine interview, Latifah has mentioned that the first draft of the script was offensive, yet funny. Now, probably many revisions later, the onscreen dialogue still takes chances. And works.
Some interesting deleted scenes (including more Levy tidbits!) pack the DVD, along with a gag reel. The commentary track is badly produced and hard to listen too, as the volume is erratic. Oh well.
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