Phat Chance

Steve Martin almost gets Down with Queen Latifah, but the two mostly strike out

You know Internet dating's become totally mainstream when Disney cranks out a bland comedy featuring a randomly selected pair of mismatched stars to take on the subject. Bearing the unwieldy and meaningless title Bringing Down the House, said comedy is predicated on the biggest pitfall of cyber-flirting, the idea that the actual person you're communicating with may bear little resemblance to what you imagined based upon his or her self-description. Thus – oopsy-daisy! – a skinny white guy (Steve Martin) could end up suddenly meeting a fat black woman (Academy Award nominee Queen Latifah). Hilarity must ensue. No, really; that's an order, not a supposition.

So calculated is this film that most of its initial jokes are crafted with the assumption that you will already have seen the trailer, or at least given the poster a good looking-over. How else are you expected to laugh at the initial online conversation Peter (Martin) has with Charlene (Latifah), wherein she mentions that on the previous day she "poked around in the yard" and "visited with a girl down the block"? See, it's funny because she's in prison; the movie itself, however, has not told you that yet. It doesn't need to – the filmmakers know you'll already know by the time you set foot in the theater.

The calculation should come as no surprise for director Adam Shankman, hack-for-hire responsible for The Wedding Planner and A Walk to Remember, both of which served only as vehicles for pop divas Jennifer Lopez and Mandy Moore to prove (without much success) that they can carry a film. Here, he's working with a rap diva who doesn't need his help, which may be why he doesn't really bother to give it. Showing zero sense of pace or comedic timing, Shankman (or his editor?) allows no joke any time to breathe, cutting to the next scene the millisecond a punch line's been uttered. The unfunny scenes, though, get played out to their fullest, notably an extended catfight scene that goes way past outstaying its welcome and doesn't even offer catharsis at the end.

House-broken: Steve Martin, Queen Latifah and Eugene Levy in Bringing Down the House.
Sam Emerson
House-broken: Steve Martin, Queen Latifah and Eugene Levy in Bringing Down the House.

What can't be blamed on Shankman is the film's script (by first-timer Jason Filardi), which cops out of its already flimsy premise. Peter thought Charlene would be slender, white and a fellow lawyer. She isn't. Do the mismatched twosome start realizing that beauty is more than skin deep, and that love can conquer all? Not exactly. Interracial dating may no longer be taboo onscreen, but dating an overweight woman is still considered a joke (though if anyone can make overweight look sexy, it's Latifah). Charlene instead gets paired up with Eugene Levy, who's portrayed as a freak for being attracted to her. Peter and Charlene do, of course, learn Valuable Life Lessons, but safe ones: He helps her try to prove she was framed, and she helps him become less uptight so his estranged wife will like him again. Peter, like most movie dads, works overtime and is loathed by his family for it; Charlene, like most movie black people, knows the secret of loosening up and being cool that somehow eludes all Caucasians.

Apparently, even this chaste exchange of ideas is still a radical idea, and to prove it Filardi has surrounded his characters with a gaggle of cartoonish bigots. There's Betty White as the crazy neighbor, sweetly intoning to Peter's son that "We need to comb your hair differently. You look like a fag." There's Missi Pyle as Peter's sister-in-law, a sharp-tongued gold digger who describes Charlene as looking "welfare-ish." Most amusingly, there's Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright), an arch-conservative heiress being courted by Peter's firm, who sings old slave songs with refrains like "Mama, is Massa gonna sell us tomorrow?" To make us hate her even more, she has also borrowed what appears to be the exact same ugly "albino Yoda" dog that appeared in Just Married, and if you make that connection as well, you've been going to too many bad movies. Go hiking or something instead. Anyway, to appease all the aforementioned clowns, much humor is milked out of the idea that Charlene must either be hidden from view or presented in a subservient housekeeper-type role. How wacky.

The movie's not without moments of genuine humor – no comedy starring Steve Martin could be – but, sad to say, his Oscar-hosting gig two years ago was funnier. Martin has two different ways of talking Ebonics, and both are a scream: There's the overanalytical, enunciate every syllable "white guy" method, and the "pretending to be an actual homeboy" routine wherein he sounds literally retarded. Both are a riot, as is the scene wherein he's forced to come up with an ersatz African-American name on the spot, and blurts out "Reverend Shack . . . tle . . . funt." Why, then, does Shankman feel the need to saddle him with yet another tiresome laxative gag, and the umpteenth white-men-can't-dance sequence? Probably for the same reason that he thinks Charlene calling Peter "P. Diddy" over and over again is funny; i.e., the man has little concept of humor. Come to think of it, maybe the film's title isn't so meaningless; watching talented stars wasted like this is likely to bring down most people in the house.

 
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