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(2003) (Steve Martin, Queen Latifah) (PG-13)

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Comedy: A tax attorney finds his life turned upside down when an escaped con infiltrates his life and wants his legal help.
Peter Sanderson (STEVE MARTIN) is a constantly busy and thus divorced tax attorney who's met a woman in a law chat room. While preparing for their first meeting, he has to fend off a young upstart, Todd Gendler (MICHAEL ROSENBAUM), from landing a lucrative account with coffee heiress Mrs. Virginia Arness (JOAN PLOWRIGHT). Quick on his feet, Peter manages to do just that, although he's fully aware of the 74-year-old's staunch conservatism.

Peter's dexterity around dicey conditions is challenged, however, when his blind Internet date turns out to be a convict, Charlene Morton (QUEEN LATIFAH). Not only is he upset that she was charged and sentenced for armed robbery, but that this young, black urban woman is not the professional, middle-aged white one he believed. Meanwhile, she's upset that he's not the criminal lawyer as he led her to believe.

He wants her to leave immediately, but eventually puts her up for the night when she makes a scene that he worries might alert his racist neighbor, Mrs. Kline (BETTY WHITE), who just so happens to be the sister to one of his bosses at work. She then manages to infiltrate herself deeper into his life - including visiting him at work where his partner, Howie Rottman (EUGENE LEVY), is entranced by her - and refuses to leave until he agrees to help her and prove her innocence.

He reluctantly does so but must focus on getting Mrs. Arness to sign a contract with his firm. That results in Charlene having to put on various demeaning acts of servitude and deal with racist behavior from her and Peter's ex-sister-in-law, Ashley (MISSI PYLE).

At the same time, Charlene starts to enlighten him about her culture, as well as ways to reconnect with his kids, Sarah (KIMBERLY J. BROWN) and Georgey (ANGUS T. JONES), and ex-wife, Kate (JEAN SMART). As he does just that, he then sets out to help Charlene out of her legal mess, which eventually leads to his contact with her former boyfriend and current thug, Widow (STEVE HARRIS).

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
When it comes to playing the older, white bread and suburban comic foil, few performers can match Steve Martin. While he may have started off playing the sort of obnoxious characters that now bedevil his more current ones, he's effortlessly made the transition over to the other side. Whether it's Neal Page in "Trains, Planes & Automobiles," Newton Davis in "Housesitter" or George Banks in the "Father of the Bride" films, nobody plays comic frustration, annoyance and irritation better than Martin.

He gets the chance to do so again in "Bringing Down the House." Unfortunately, he's far better than the material in this messy, sprawling comedy that could be considered a second cousin of sorts to "Housesitter." Rather than Goldie Hawn invading his suburban life, however, this time it's Queen Latifah, hot off her role in "Chicago."

With her playing the hip and occasionally perturbed urbanite (albeit with a police record) to his stuffy, culturally challenged suburban dweller, it's not hard to see the tired and recycled culture clash material coming at you like an ACME anvil falling from the sky. While certainly not the first film to go down this familiar path - think of Warren Beatty in "Bulworth" - this effort takes its politically incorrect humor to new levels.

Beyond Martin's character being oblivious to "black culture" (or at least this movie's version of that), looking down on it or even trying to adopt it, various white characters are outright racist in their comments and actions. Like the overall film, the attempted humor is obvious, and at least some of the offenders get their comedic comeuppance. Even so, some viewers may find the material offensive and/or demeaning to varying degrees.

Everyone else will likely find the rest of film dumb, sporadically funny and undoubtedly poorly written. While the premise isn't particularly novel or noteworthy, it obviously has some potential. That's particularly true if the filmmakers would utilize the progressively growing snowball element where things comically spiral out of control in bigger and hopefully funnier ways.

A tiny bit of that occasionally surfaces, but director Adam Shankman ("The Wedding Planner," "A Walk to Remember") and screenwriter Jason Filardi (making his debut) have otherwise resorted to sloppy and lazy storytelling and filmmaking.

Yes, there are some laugh-out-loud moments. Yet, they're nearly matched in number by coincidences and convenient occurrences (such as people being in the same place at the same time or news appearing on the TV at just the right moment, etc.) that prove scant imagination or creativity is at work here.

If that's not bad enough, there's never any doubt that Latifah's character (like many other black guru-like characters before her) is going to help Martin's get his life in order and back on track in terms of family, career and self. To make matters worse, there's some tacked-on violent thug material in the third act that's incongruous with the rest of the film's tone and offers far too easy of a way out for the filmmakers to resolve matters.

As the stuffy, middle-aged suburbanite who's about to be enlightened, Martin is fun to watch as always, although he could sleepwalk his way through a role like this. Even so, his facial expressions are often priceless and he occasionally gets off some decent, deadpan one-liners. He also gets to cut up and act goofy on several occasions, harkening back to his earlier days and characters.

Queen Latifah ("Brown Sugar," "The Bone Collector") is okay as the comic thorn in his side cum life educator, but her character is saddled with too many inconsistencies and clichés to make her be as entertaining as she could have been. Eugene Levy ("Like Mike," "Serendipity") generates some laughs as another middle-aged white dude who's smitten with her and tries to be down with the slang.

Joan Plowright ("Tea With Mussolini," "101 Dalmatians"), Betty White ("The Story of Us," "Lake Placid") and Missi Pyle ("Josie and the Pussycats," "Galaxy Quest") play the various racist women who, for the most part, aren't funny (although White seems to be having fun playing against normal stereotype).

Meanwhile, Jean Smart ("Sweet Home Alabama," "Snow Day"), Kimberly J. Brown ("Tumbleweeds," TV's "Rose Red") and Angus T. Jones ("The Rookie," "See Spot Run") are okay but unremarkable as the protagonist's divorced family.

If the film had taken more of a tongue in cheek approach at dealing with the familiar and predictable material, it might have been better and certainly would have come off as more tolerable and/or excusable. While it offers some occasional laughs, the film makes the fatal flaw of letting down its strongest asset, and that's Steve Martin. All of which means that "Bringing Down the House" isn't successful at doing just that, at least not from a comedy standpoint. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 4, 2003 / Posted March 7, 2003

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