- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

"Bringing Down the House" is definitely a bring-down, especially if you have been nursing the hope that Steve Martin might luck into a decent movie of a humorous sort.
No longer near the head of the line when promising material is being commissioned, Mr. Martin seems resigned to faking it with the leftovers. Sometimes he even prepares the leftovers: He was credited as the writer of the hapless "Bowfinger" a few years back.
"Bringing Down" can be blamed on someone else: a neophyte screenwriter named Jason Filardi, who evidently graduated from George Washington University, perhaps not a hotbed of comedy invention. If there were room for improvement, you couldn't infer it from the brainless direction of Adam Shankman.
That Steve Martin comeback project remains elusive. "Bowfinger" was followed by "Novocaine," an uproarious vehicle for Laura Dern. Now there's "Bringing Down," a more reliable showcase of a cloddish kind for Queen Latifah.
Trading on telltale signs of passivity in the leading man, the new movie overwhelms him with an irrepressible and sarcastic leading lady. Ostensibly, Mr. Martin is a prominent Los Angeles tax lawyer, Peter Sanderson, divorced from spouse Jean Smart in the recent past. Queen Latifah is a rowdy interloper named Charlene Morton, who sneaks up on Sanderson from chat-room concealment in order to coerce some legal assistance. Evidently, she was convicted for armed robbery; she claims it was all a frame-up. As events unfold, the movie itself proves an even sorrier excuse for a frame-up.
In "Dark Blue," a crooked cop played by Kurt Russell eventually throws himself on the mercy of Ving Rhames, a righteous colleague. The unspoken plea: "Brother, save us sinful white guys from ourselves." A similar desperation, expressed in terms of rampaging farcical triteness and vulgarity, seems to afflict "Bringing Down."
Professionally successful but domestically abandoned, Peter the hero must submit to personality shock therapy from his unwanted houseguest, a wisecracking force of nature from the 'hood. Mr. Martin pretends to get jiggy under Queen Latifah's influence in order to redeem the wayward white man.
The laborious nature of the bonding between hero and heroine is underlined by the fact that Charlene attracts a willing admirer in Peter's colleague Howie, played by Eugene Levy. Smitten on sight, Howie obviously would sacrifice any shred of identity and dignity to get his paws on Charlene. It's a transparently funnier notion than the grotesque game plan contrived to make Peter and Charlene somehow indispensable to each other without jeopardizing a reunion with Miss Smart as Peter's ex, Kate.
I was easily distracted by the fact that Peter appears to be living alone in a mansion that suggests maybe Beverly Hills while Kate resides with their two children (the eldest is a daughter of 15, Sarah, played by Kimberly J. Brown) in a modestly swank suburb that suggests, maybe, Brentwood. Is Peter so wealthy that he could finesse mortgages for both these domiciles? Where were all four Sandersons dwelling before the divorce? Is one of these homes a loaner from Peter's firm? It's like watching TV news. You never get explanations for the things that really arouse your curiosity.
It's all too obvious that merciless slapstick will substitute for comic style in "Bringing Down." Three excruciating characters are on the periphery: Betty White as a neighbor, Mrs. Kline, deployed to observe Peter in embarrassing moments; Missi Pyle as a mercenary and contemptuous younger sister, Ashley, to the unoffending Kate Sanderson; and Joan Plowright as a wealthy heiress, Mrs. Arness, whose account could make Peter the envy of his profession.
Both older women are caricatured in an arbitrary way as antediluvian bigots. This bad-faith libel seems to be inoperative in later scenes. Miss Pyle is on hand mainly to duke it out with Queen Latifah during a would-be-hilarious brawl in a country-club restroom. The bad faith in this instance resounds in the sound effects, which exaggerate the haymakers landed and body blows received by the pugnacious gals.
Mrs. Kline justifies her busybody profile when she walks in on a ribald interlude between Peter and Charlene, who get carried away by a jungle-fever mood while she advises him on current styles of aggressive foreplay.
If this thigh-slapper isn't painfully facetious enough for one sitting, there's also the dinner party with Mrs. Arness. Charlene has to pretend to be the family cook and retaliates by spiking one serving of jambalaya with a laxative…. Well, you get the picture. Stale and repulsive slapstick payoffs become a bad habit in "Bringing Down the House."
Peter's transformation is cinched when he masquerades as what would appear to be America's most overaged white rapper. This ruse allows him to infiltrate the den of Charlene's nemesis, Widow, played by Steve Harris. There's a slight hitch, because Widow gets the wisest wisecrack in the show: "… boy, you lookin' all kinds of stupid." Amen.
The aging process trips up Mr. Martin at an earlier point in the show, when he's primping in front of a mirror and you notice that his silver hair is pretty thin these days and that his nose has acquired a certain W.C. Fields puffiness. There are character roles that might take advantage of these developments, but "Bringing Down the House" leaves Mr. Martin in an exposed and unflattering condition while pretending to bridge generational, personality and racial gaps.
Steve Martin and Queen Latifah never start to resemble a compatible team. The moronic emphasis of the material precludes such a happy consummation, but they could be likened to ships passing in broad daylight, one in need of refurbishing and the other in need of a few more trial runs with a steadier skipper.

*1/2
TITLE: "Bringing Down the House"
RATING: PG-13 (Systematic comic vulgarity; frequent lewd allusions and fleeting depictions of drug use)
CREDITS: Directed by Adam Shankman. Written by Jason Filardi. Cinematography by Julio Macat. Production design by Linda DeScenna. Costume design by Pam Withers. Music by Lalo Schifrin
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

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