Funny doesn't have to mean original
For someone who is a comedian, Steve Martin is a fairly classy guy. He collects modern art, writes plays about people with complex ideas, and having come squarely into middle age, chooses to be involved in projects with a more delicate touch to them.
Queen Latifah seems to coming on as an actress, having been nominated for an Oscar for Chicago, after years of mostly small roles. Admittedly, this recent success builds on her singing talents, but a marketable actor will always be marketed to an increasingly larger audience.
So, of course these two get thrown together in a film, Bringing Down the House, a light comedy desperately in need of a less generic title. Martin is the divorced lawyer dad, Peter Sanderson, and Latifah is Charlene Morton, the Internet date who tries to be everything he wants so she can get what she wants - someone to exonerate her from the armed robbery charge she's been nabbed for. Neither is what they sold themselves to be, and the cultural divide between them is the entire foundation of the film.
What pushes the film onward is Sanderson's need to woo a new client for his law firm, an older woman well known for being conservative. Across the street from Peter's house is the slightly batty and innocently racist neighbor (Betty White, who has turned her career toward "edgier" characters, it seems). Peter's naturally inclination to reject Charlene outright is thrown against his need to maintain appearances, which is not Charlene's inclination at all - she tends toward a brash personality, and is quite willing to play out any black stereotype if it will embarrass Peter into helping her out.
Toss in the ex-wife Peter still seems to be sweet on, the children who are attracted by Charlene's openness and warmth, and Peter's coworker (Eugene Levy) who finds Charlene to be the height of attractiveness. Levy is the most interesting of the peripheral characters, walking a line between a dorky white man's spin on black culture and genuine feeling for Charlene.
For the most part, we've seen these jokes, these scenes before. I've already seen Warren Beatty ghetto'd up in Bulworth. Hiding embarrassing people has been a staple of film since way before Weekend At Bernie's. In fact, it's awfully hard to spin a tale out of original elements, and with so many films made a year, you might as well make them right. And they do a pretty good job here.
Take the fight scene between Charlene and the snooty friend of Peter's ex-wife. The scene is fairly extensive and seems inspired, in part, by similar scenes in The Matrix. Rather than actually parody the special effects of that film - like so many others have done recently - the scene is allowed to build on itself, out of the determination of the characters.
I may seem to be knocking this film a lot, just to build it back uo. Well, it's true. The fact is that it's a fun flick, and a good choice for those times the last thing you want a film to do is challenge you, which is nothing to be ashamed about.
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