Two game stars are forced to carry the lien on their backs in “Bringing Down the House,” a black-collides-with-white culture comedy that could have been a lot wilder and crazier than it is. With Steve Martin and Queen Latifah both enormously at home in their respective roles as a straight-laced corporate attorney and a brassy ex-con who upends his rigid lifestyle, there are certainly good laughs to be had. But the contrived script and bland direction prevent the film from ever developing a comic life of its own, leaving what fun there is seeming like the foundation to a rumpus room that’s never finished. Commercially, Disney should have little trouble promoting the picture as an almost ideal crossover comedy, as mainstream auds on both sides of the racial aisle will be amused with the up-front way stereotypes are broached. Following nationwide sneaks this weekend, biz upon general release two weeks hence should be brisk.
For many viewers, just the prospect of seeing Martin back in the sort of broad physical comedy that made his name will be enticing enough, while Latifah’s still-rising star will be given a further boost from the way her character’s antics force a pasty perfectionist to loosen up and get down.
Set-up promises rooms of potential. Having developed a friendly and mildly flirtatious online relationship with a “lawyer-girl,” eager divorcee Peter Sanderson (Martin) invites her over, only to open the door of his luxurious L.A. home to get an eyeful of Charlene Morton (Latifah), a black bombshell in blue denim cutoffs who’s been in prison but claims she’s innocent and has come to him to get her name cleared.
Completely freaked over the woman’s e-mail deception, Peter kicks her out, but she returns again, and again, and again, always at the most embarrassingly inconvenient moment. It’s a gambit that can be played a couple of times, but device’s frequency digs a hole for the film by making Charlene’s rudeness almost as annoying to the audience as it is to Peter. And it raises the question of why Peter doesn’t quickly agree to meet her at a convenient time and place and quickly finish their business once and for all.
But then, of course, there wouldn’t be a movie, so Charlene pulls one stunt after another –surprising him with a raucous house party at his Hancock Park manse, crashing his lily-white country club just before an all-important meeting with a billionairess prospective client (Joan Plowright), and disrupting his proper law office. Finally, Peter breaks down and takes the imperturbable interloper out to a dinner-and-dance club, where his ex, Kate (Jean Smart) just happens to be dining with her witch of a sister, Ashley (Missi Pyle), who earlier squared off in a brutal catfight with Charlene.
Duo’s “date” leads to pic’s comic highlight: When they get home, raunchy Charlene challenges an enthusiastic Peter to rediscover his long-lost cojones and become king of the jungle. Sequence brings out the best in both performers, as Latifah really shakes it, taunting the uptight lawyer, demanding that he grab her mountainous breasts (which he does) and do what a man’s supposed to do, while Martin gets very silly and funny with some down, and somewhat dirty, slapstick. The two work so well together one wishes first-time screenwriter Jason Filardi’s material possessed a level of inspiration worthy of the two performers.
After bothering Peter so much in the first half and getting him in hot water at work, second half has Charlene proving her worth by using her street smarts to help Peter’s teenage daughter out of a jam, and Peter proving himself to Charlene by finding his inner homeboy. Latter is accomplished in an over-the-top climactic scene in which Peter, clad in ghetto gear, invades a shady downtown club, adopts street talk (taught to him by guess who), does some goofy dance-floor gyrations and confronts the gangsta for whose crime Charlene did the time.
Filardi’s script could have used considerably more smarts about the building and sustaining of farce. Also missing are the sorts of comedic rhythms that take amusement to the realm of hilarity; the numerous very short scenes, especially toward the film’s middle, allow no time for humor to mount. Direction by Adam Shankman (“The Wedding Planner”) could not be more conventional, with production values following suit.
Eugene Levy scores with one-note second banana shtick as Peter’s attorney buddy whose attentions to the awesome “Congo goddess” are so unstintingly perverse that Charlene repeatedly rewards him with the sobriquet, “freak.” Plowright almost seems to be auditioning for any queenly role Judi Dench might not want as she strides imperiously through her role of a Southern girl-turned-British aristocrat who riles Charlene by sentimentally singing “Is Massuh Gonna Sell Me Tomorrow?” at the dinner table, but finally unwinds with the help of some ganja at a hip hop club.
Ultimately, “Bringing Down the House” might most be remembered, at least in the short term, for the joke (prominently featured in the trailer) in which Peter’s little boy, having been shown a dirty magazine by “babysitter” Charlene, asks, “Daddy, what’s a rack?” “It’s a country,” Pop testily replies.