Bringing Down the House 

(PG-13) 3 stars

(PG-13) 3 stars
Years ago, my son and I attended an inter-island street festival while vacationing in the Caribbean. We were two of only a few whites in attendance that night and, as such, drew attention from some of the entertainers. Late in the evening, a fire dancer from Haiti pulled me up onto the stage. She placed my hands on her unbelievably muscular butt and shimmied. I was impressed.
Next, she did a long, elaborate, sexy dance over a fire, moving slow and close to the flames. When she finished, she stood back and made a grand gesture toward me, a good-natured invitation to give it a try. I did, straddling the flames and doing my best to imitate her dance moves. When I started, there was a surprised, "Whoop!" from some of the onlookers, followed by applause and cheers for my inept, but earnest, gyrations. Then the dancer led me to the edge of the stage, gave me a peck on the cheek and went back to continue her show. Afterwards, she sought me out in the crowd and thanked me for joining in and showing such enthusiasm. She asked where I was from and, when I told her I was from the States, her expression changed to one of surprise. Shaking her head slowly, she said, "But America is such a constipated country!" I"ve included that anecdote in this review for two reasons. First, it makes me look pretty cool and, second, it fits the core dynamic of Bringing Down the House perfectly. In the comedy, Steve Martin personifies the Constipated American, while Queen Latifah represents the free souls who know a better way to live. For Martin, the role marks a return to familiar turf. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles he played an uptight businessman annoyed, then liberated, by a loosey-goosey soul (beautifully played by John Candy). While that film mined comedy from class stereotypes, Bringing Down the House bounces off racial ones. It draws laughs, including a number of big ones, but a strong argument could be made that the movie reinforces some of the very stereotypes it purports to be mocking. Thankfully, Steve Martin, Queen Latifah and Eugene Levy rise above their material and keep us chuckling during the more squirm-inducing portions of the mediocre screenplay. Latifah, one of the film"s executive producers, says in the press notes, "There are a lot of controversial jokes in the film, and we"d go back and forth figuring out what was offensive, what was funny and what was offensive but funny enough to get over-the-top." Another rewrite - one that played more off the straight-laced vs. laid-back dynamic rather than racial stereotypes - would have helped. And someone should have sat down with writer Jason Filardi and instructed him to streamline the overwritten story. Filardi takes a simple, workable concept and keeps adding subplots. As a result, the film, serviceably directed by Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember), feels like an edited version of a longer cut. Martin plays Peter, a lawyer whose fixation on work ruined his marriage. Although he is still in love with ex-wife Jean Smart, he sets up a dinner date with a woman he met in a law-related chat room. He opens his door expecting the knockout blonde whose picture he received online. Instead, there stands Charlene Morton (Latifah), who appears in the background of the photo, being taken into custody by police. Charlene, fresh from prison, wants help clearing her name. Peter wants her gone. Not enough plot for you? It certainly wasn"t for Filardi. He puts Peter into an ultra-conservative law firm, where he is trying to land a super-ultra-conservative client (Joan Plowright). Two more lawyers are introduced: Howie (Eugene Levy), a lusty fellow who falls for Charlene and is fluent in hip-hop slang, and Todd (Michael Rosenbaum), a young shark gunning for Peter"s job. Are things beginning to sound a bit busy? Wait, there"s more! Peter also has two kids (Kimberly J. Brown and Angus T. Jones) who come to visit just after Charlene arrives. And then there"s Charlene"s boyfriend, Widow (Steve Harris, wasted here), Mrs. Kline (Betty White), Peter"s flagrantly bigoted next door neighbor (not once does Peter challenge her, even when she uses the word "fag" in front of his son), and Ashley (Missi Pyle), a gossipy office man-hunter. See what I mean about overwriting? I expect that Bringing Down the House will be a big hit. The screenplay delivers a reasonable number of laughs and who would miss a chance to see Steve Martin, Queen Latifah and Eugene Levy? But the bottom line is that another script rewrite or two could have made this a much, much better movie.

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