Race card is an ace in `House'

Martin and Latifah find stereotypes can be a laughing matter

March 07, 2003|By Roger Moore | Roger Moore,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bringing Down the House is a gut-busting black-and-white culture clash comedy. It's not elegantly done. Some of the acting is too broad to enjoy. It has plot problems and racial-stereotype problems.

And truth be told, Disney is not the studio you'd expect to try to get jiggy with it. Disney's comedies with black actors have often had an unpleasant aftertaste. But that's kind of the point. The first truly funny movie of 2003 plays the race card, often to hilarious effect.

In this corner - Peter, an uptight divorced white lawyer, played by the perfectly cast Steve Martin. And vexing him - a brassy, utterly un-uptight ex-con, Charlene, played by the perfectly cast Queen Latifah.

He's lonely, given to flirting with strangers in Internet chat rooms for lawyers. That's where Charlene picks him up. Let's just say that neither was inclined to give an accurate self-description online.

She needs a lawyer and isn't above yanking him around to get one. He's mortified about what his neighbor, the bigot, will think. Imagine Betty White uttering this line: "Peter, I thought I heard Negro."

"No ma'am. No Negro spoken here!" he responds.

The laughs are as obvious as they are genuine. Martin and Latifah make the most out of the slanguage barrier. And the supporting cast, especially White, Joan Plowright and Eugene Levy, scores time and again. Levy, as an oversexed law partner with a sensational command of black street argot, is a stitch.

The story's a little patronizing in that Member of the Wedding way whenever it has Charlene pitch in to help with the kids. It's politically incorrect enough to actually package the black characters into the very stereotypes the movie is supposed to mock. They're all criminals, dope-smoking partyers or home boys. Blame a novice screenwriter and a Wedding Planner director for that.

Latifah throws herself into "Yessa Massa" moments where she pretends to be a governess, a cook or a church fund-raiser. She's not yet a subtle actress, but she has great presence.

Martin nails the obligatory dress-and-talk like a homey scene. At 57, his comedy is more physical here than it has been in years, and that's a good thing.

But the real hoots come from unexpected corners - Plowright singing an offensive field hand's spiritual, Levy leering and a catfight between Latifah and a prissy bigot (Missi Pyle) that is shocking in its comic brutality and its outcome.

Bringing Down the House isn't art. But it is funny. And as laugh-starved as the screen has been these past several months, that's enough.

Roger Moore writes for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Sun Score **1/2

Bringing Down the House

Starring Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Jean Smart, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, Betty White

Directed by Adam Shankman

Released by Disney

Rated PG-13 (language, sexual humor and drug content)

Time 101 minutes

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