- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2003

In a period of impending war and economic uncertainty, when few industries seem able to gain any traction, one small sector of the entertainment economy lowbrow movie comedies is realizing high returns by aiming low.
The latest, least likely and most lucrative example is "Bringing Down the House," the badly reviewed new comedy starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, which earned $31.1 million in its opening weekend, the fourth-largest March opening ever.
How did such a sloppy, anachronistic film manage to flatten the competition with such ease?
"House" milks racial stereotypes of spontaneous, uninhibited blacks and repressed whites for a kind of comedy that would have seemed passe even in a '70s-vintage sitcom such as "The Jeffersons" or "Soap."
Queen Latifah's character is referred to as Aunt Jemima at one point, and several white characters traffic in racist banter without a trace of self-awareness. Watching Latifah serve Mr. Martin's family dinner while a wealthy guest (Joan Plowright) sings a "negro spiritual" could be the most squirm-inducing movie moment of 2003.
None of that mattered to audiences, apparently. The crowd-pleasing comic chemistry between Mr. Martin and the charismatic rapper easily overcame poor taste and the lack of a plausibly rendered social background .
Perhaps the looming war with Iraq has left tense audiences easy pickings for escapist farce. It wouldn't be the first time moviegoers turned to mediocre comedy including Abbott and Costello's string of films during World War II to forget their worries during periods of international danger.
"It's easy to say the world situation is instilling in moviegoers the desire to escape at the movies, but it still comes down to the movies themselves and the marketing," Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co., told the Los Angeles Daily News. According to the paper, Mr. Dergarabedian also cited a series of successful sneak previews to explain the you've-gotta-be-kidding grosses of "House," which has averaged $11,104 per screen.
Mr. Martin stars in the movie as a divorced lawyer who strikes up a flirty friendship in an online legal chat room. The woman (Latifah) is far from the pretty blond lawyer she claims to be. She recently broke out of jail and is looking to reopen her case to prove her innocence.
When she decides Mr. Martin is just the man for the job, his staid life comes unraveled.
Part of the box-office credit should go to the film's leads. Mr. Martin returns here, after a long layoff, to physical comedy. It was a King Tut dance, remember, not literary humor for the New Yorker, that made him a star in the '70s. For her part, Queen Latifah builds on the career momentum she created in "Chicago" with a combination of charm and sass that commands the screen.
The film's secret weapon may be "SCTV" graduate Eugene Levy, who has made a specialty lately of making otherwise unwatchable films tolerable (2001's "Serendipity," 2001's "American Pie 2"). In "House," his character falls in lust with Latifah, wooing her with newly mastered street slang.
"The cool points are out the window, and you've got me all twisted up in the game," he says of the curvaceous actress in the film's wittiest snippet.
If only Mr. Levy could be rationed out to other laugh-deprived comedies.
The weekend haul for "House" gives Mr. Martin the biggest opening of his career, a little sad considering his resume includes "All of Me" (1984), "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987) and "Parenthood" (1989).
Last weekend's second-place film, the Bruce Willis military thriller "Tears of the Sun," brought in a respectable $17 million. The movie's timely plot involving U.S. troops saving innocents caught up in a civil war proved no match for stilted slapstick.
"House" has plenty of company in the lucrative low-brow comedy category. "Kangaroo Jack," a piece of kiddie junk, has brought in more than $60 million to date, while tepid romantic comedies including "Two Week's Notice" and "Maid in Manhattan" hovered around the $90 million mark and the odious "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" likely will shatter the $100 million plateau by month's end.
For Mr. Martin, who seemed to be enjoying greater success lately as a comic novelist than as a comic performer, the smash couldn't have come at a better time: He serves as host of this year's Oscar ceremony March 23. The late-career revival couldn't have happened to a wilder and crazier guy.

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