Bringing Down the House

Divorced uptight lawyer Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) believes he's wooing a beautiful blonde attorney online, but is shocked to discover that Charlene (Queen Latifah, "Chicago") is actually a large Black prison escapee who wants him to take her case. Not understanding who he's up against, Peter refuses and finds his world turned upside down by Charlene. Until she gets what she wants, Charlene is "Bringing Down the House."

Laura's Review: C-

The likability quotient of Steve Martin and particularly Queen Latifah can't push "Bringing Down the House" into pass territory. Jason Filardi's first screenplay is cobbled together from every unwanted guest/outsider helps kids over obstacles/adversaries bond together to fight common cause comedy that's come before it with the added distasteful elements of not one, but two, offensively racist old white women and a female fist fight every bit as out of place as the one in Adam Sandler's "Mr. Deeds" remake.

After its "You've Got Mail" beginning, director Adam Shankman ("A Walk to Remember") wastes no time establishing Peter as the type of guy who lost his wife Kate (Jean Smart, "Sweet Home Alabama") to his incessant cell phone and who constantly reneges on promises to the kids. His sister-in-law Ashley (Missi Pyle, "Josie and the Pussycats") not only hates him, but has the amazing ability to dine at the very same restaurant in LA every time he goes out. On the career front Peter has to prove himself over a young law office hot shot in keeping an odious money-buckets widow, Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright, "Tea With Mussolini"), with their firm. Yet another ball and chain from the office is embodied by Peter's boss's busybody sister, Mrs. Kline (Betty White, "Lake Placid"), who lives across the street. Now just add large, loud, funky black woman from the hood for instant hilarity.

Martin has exemplary comic timing and reacts with gumby-faced verve while Latifah gamely moves between the lingoes of street and society, rolling out the warmth as the film progresses, but the filmmakers let each down in the physical comedy arena. "Bringing Down the House' can't stretch Martin's ability to move beyond the 'white men can't dance' cliche, although it does hand him a parody (not intended as such, I'm sure) scene of Warren Beatty's "Bulworth." Latifah must suffer through some crudely choreographed slapstick (she punches Martin out when he comes to awaken her) and a vile and wholly unnecessary ladies' room catfight that has her pounding her opponent's head into tile.

Eugene Levy ("American Pie," "Best in Show") adds a welcome dose of weirdness as Peter's buddy Howie Rottman, a man undone by the goddessness of Latifah. Freak Boy, as Charlene affectionately calls him, is this comedy's comic relief, a lackey lothario in love. Betty White plays Mrs. Kline as if she were in a television commercial, although she does deliver one admittedly funny line - "I thought I heard Negro being spoken" - after Charlene creates a scene outside of Peter's front door. Joan Plowright goes for the one-note 'dreaded old matron with ridiculous pet' character and gets to show off her vocal range regaling the Sanderson family dinner table with a few choruses of "Massuh are you going to sell me today?" (As if that weren't bad enough, it's motivation for Charlene to dose her dinner with Maalox only to see the plates get switched.) Later on, Joan smokes a doob with the homies because old people getting stoned is funny. Kimberly J. Brown ("Tumbleweeds") and Angus T. Jones ("The Rookie") handle the roles of Peter's kids well enough, giving Martin comic fodder when Charlene steps in to help each over a growing pain.

Presumably, "Bringing Down the House" is about the spiritual gains to be had by helping other members of the human race, but predictably, here the helping hand has to be blackmailed.