Being both uptight and white, I had great expectations for comic catharsis from this latest Yup vs. Bap fish-out-of-water "romp." Bringing Down the House stars the sublimely mismatched Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, from whom I had grand hopes of outrageous humor and even some unconventional sexual chemistry. I had thought the bar to be set a little higher than the average cinematic situation comedy. Not so. It does for black/white buddy movies (I classify this as a buddy film, since there is no romance between Martin and Latifah) what the awful The Banger Sisters did for chick flicks: It insults its audience while still pandering to the lowest common denominator.
I would like to start by submitting that much of this limp film is pure 1980s. Its bizarre musical score belongs in an elevator or as suicide-hotline hold music and not in a major motion picture. The songs are a very retro-sounding hip-hop -- such that my equally vanilla friend Amy remarked during a montage that maybe the movie was trying to be "old school." And sadly, the racial humor (that's all there is in Bringing Down the House) is outdated as well -- untouched leftovers from some Eddie Murphy vehicle perhaps. All involved deserve better, save Ms. Latifah, who actually executive-produced the damn thing.
Martin is lawyer Peter Sanderson, recently estranged from wife Kate (beautiful and wasted Jean Smart) and distant father to two very typical movie moppets -- one who can't read and one who will end up stranded at a scary teen party. Lonely Peter "meets" a very upscale-sounding lady in a chat room and arranges a champagne rendezvous at his place. The catch? It's Queen Latifah. Funny, she doesn't look like that pretty, white lawyer-y gal in the picture she sent. Ah, she must be that voluptuous black convict being arrested in the background of the picture. Sneaky. Anyway, recently liberated from prison, she is here to blackmail Peter into re-opening her case, insisting that she was framed for the armed robbery of a bank. "Hilarity" ensues when she refuses to get out of his life and causes all sorts of problems with the ex and with a billionaire client whom Peter's firm is courting. This billionaire is played by Joan Plowright.
I interrupt this review in its tracks for a moment to lament that the estimable Ms. Plowright is even in this film. She is Laurence Olivier's widow and a grande dame of the British stage and screen. There is some comedy over the fact that she is so Anglo and snooty, but mostly it is just sad to see her staying afloat in inferior material like this. There is a jaw-droppingly bad scene where she drops in for dinner at the Sanderson home and reminisces about her black servants, while Latifah's Charlene poses as the family nanny and cook. Plowright horrifyingly sings an entire verse of a slave spiritual, while Martin's stomach makes bathroom noises after he is given laxative-loaded food intended for Plowright. She will later end up cavorting on top of a bar after she is kidnapped (along with her ugly German bulldog, William Shakespeare, who even wears the fringey ruffle around his neck) and given marijuana by some generous and amused homeboyz.
Most of this movie is not funny. The staggering comic potential of putting Steve Martin and Queen Latifah together is wasted on two counts: A) The movie only knows how to play the race card -- black and white, soul and rhythm vs. the Man; B) They are not romantically paired. Steve Martin and Queen Latifah having sex? Now THAT's comedy. But Bringing Down the House doesn't go there. Instead, we have the safe and uninteresting rekindling of Peter's struggling marriage and Latifah's considerable corn-fed sex appeal pawned off onto Eugene Levy, whose own comic talents are wasted on lines like, "Oh, swing it, you cocoa goddess." This is like most lines in the film: winking nods to race as a gentle but hilarious social divider, serving simultaneously to enforce unflattering stereotypes even as they make fun of them. Ha ha.