Bringing Down the House follows Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) a divorced conservative workaholic tax attorney who is still hung up on his ex-wife (Jean Smart) but has little time for a social life–or his two kids (Kimberly J. Brown Angus T. Jones). His only outlet is a cyber relationship with an online chat buddy he thinks is a buxom blonde lawyer with whom he finally makes a date to meet in person. Lo and behold the buxom blonde turns out to be the ghetto fabulous Charlene (Queen Latifah) a convict who claims she’s been framed for a crime and wants Peter to help clear her name. None too happy about this turn of events Peter just wants her out of his house like yesterday but this woman will not be ignored. She quickly invades his home his life and jeopardizes his career especially his efforts to woo a billion-dollar client (Joan Plowright). Is Charlene really all that bad? Of course not–she’s just a misguided angel in disguise and soon she is showing Peter the error of his ways helping his family come together.
Martin once again displays his knack for physical comedy and does indeed “bring down the house” a number of times. But darn it–and I truly hate to say this–the man is just getting a too old to be bouncing around like he used to. He makes fun of his age in the film but goes ahead and dry humps Charlene on the couch in a drunken stupor or dresses up in gangsta-rap gear anyway. It’s embarrassing. Martin is much better suited as the suave intelligent bitingly acerbic fellow we know and love. Perhaps he should think about doing more in the vein of his devastatingly wicked performance in David Mamet‘s The Spanish Prisoner. Latifah on the other hand fits in like a glove rising above the material and stealing almost every scene she is in. After snagging an Oscar nod for her juicy turn in Chicago it seems to be the Queen’s year–so look out folks here she comes! The film is also briefly elevated by the hysterical supporting turns of Eugene Levy Peter’s jive-talkin’ associate Howie who’s got a jones for Charlene; Betty White as Peter’s neighbor a twisted racist version of Mrs. Kravitz from the TV show Bewitched; and Plowright as the snooty Mrs. Arness who gets high with a little help from some pot-smokin’ friends in a club one of the better “stoned” scenes in recent memory.
Latifah told Entertainment Weekly that House‘s first draft was so heavily populated with racist characters it was “a wreck and offensive…The question was Can we make it what it needs to be?” A very good question indeed and it’s pretty clear they weren’t able to fix the inherent problems. It’s a broad comedy pure and simple but in making us laugh apparently it is also necessary to insult our intelligence. Director Adam Shankman (A Walk to Remember; The Wedding Planner) handles the material like a bull in a china shop going straight for hackneyed jokes where nothing comes as a surprise and everything can be seen a mile away (especially if you saw the trailer). The Mary Poppins-ish theme with the brash Charlene could have been an entertaining twist on the “traveling angel” genre (a term used by screenwriting guru John Truby) where a character comes in changes everything around for the better and then leaves. Instead House unfortunately falls into staid patterns with only brief moments of hilarity.