IN THE DARK/Jonathan Richards
BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE
Directed by Adam Shankman
PG-13, 105 minutes
Imagine you are on a slow train moving through a tunnel lined with familiar
advertising posters, with no idea of where you're going, nothing to read, nobody
to talk to. Every once in a while the train bursts into the open, and for a few
moments you get a flash of delightful scenery. Then another tunnel swallows you
This is pretty much the experience of the irrelevantly titled "Bringing
Down the House", the humdrum comedy that has placed under house arrest
performers like Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Eugene Levy, and a few others, some
with talent, some who fit the material like a latex glove. The material,
courtesy of a first-time screenwriter named Jason Filardi, should give hope to
all of us with unsold screenplays in our sock drawers. It is directed by Adam
Shankman, who previously piloted another pop star, J-Lo, onto the rocks with
"The Wedding Planner". (But shed no tears of sympathy for Queen Latifah, who
produced, and presumably helped shape, this mess.)
Tax attorney Peter Sanderson (Martin) is one of those uptight workaholics
whose marriage has crumbled under the weight of late nights at the office and no
time for the kids. Seeking feminine companionship, he enters into a chat room
correspondence with a woman named Charlene Morton, who uses the moniker
LawyerGirl, and sends him a picture that features a cute white blonde in front
of a courthouse. When they make a date and she turns up at his house, however,
she is not the babe in the photo's foreground. She is big, bold, buxom, brassy
and black. She is Queen Latifah, and boy is this a problem in Peter's
Charlene does in fact turn out to be involved with the law, but on the
shady side of it. She's been doing time for a robbery she claims she didn't
commit, and she wants Peter to take her case. When he shows her the door, she
breaks back in while he's out, and somehow manages in the course of a few hours
to throw a huge party at his house for every African-American in town. When he
objects, she threatens him with blackmail. After a while, her guilt or
innocence on the armed robbery charge comes to seem irrelevant.
This is one of those movies that milk the culture clash of white squareness
and black hipness for all it's worth, which in this case is not very much.
Maybe all the good gags were used up in "The Jerk", a racial comedy from
Martin's happier days. Here, the principle vein of humor being mined is that
every time Charlene shows up in Peter's whites-only world she has to pretend to
be a maid or a nanny and do a little ironic Tomming to haul his bacon out of the
fire. If you find wit in the sight gag of Peter's kids smuggling Charlene into
the house behind an inflatable pool raft while nosey neighbor Betty White glares
suspiciously, you're in for a better time than I had.
But Martin and Latifah are funny people, and in spite of everything they
can't help busting out every so often. She tries to teach him how to put some
macho in his lovemaking, and they pour so much energy into the scene you can't
help laughing. The great British dame Joan Plowright manages to pump humor into
a situation as tired as the old saw about a snooty woman smoking a joint with a
couple of black hipsters and getting funky. And Levy performs miracles with his
marginal screen time as Peter's law partner who falls for Charlene: when she
tells him to turn the car around and head downtown and he deadpans "Downtown is
where I live, baby!" you might forget yourself and think for a moment you were
at a real comedy.
But for every pint of humor there's a gallon of swill. A measure of
director Shankman's finger on the pulse of the comic muse is an endless and
torturously unamusing cat-fight between Charlene and skinny white Ashley (Missi
Pyle) in the ladies' locker room at the country club.
For all its posturing as an equal opportunity comedy, "Bringing Down the
House" doesn't have the courage to bring its leads together romantically. With
prompting from Latifah, Martin gets his hands on the formidable mounds of her
chest, but no sacred or profane love is allowed to spring up between them.
While he patches things up with his wife (Jean Smart), the Queen is fobbed off
on second banana Levy, and even they are protected by a strategically drawn
window shade from the possible regional box office virus of an interracial kiss.
Movies like this come out in March for a reason. The cast is appealing,
the previews are enticing, and the producers can count on making back their nut
before the public wises up.
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