Bringing Down The House

"What fresh hell is this?," an unusually apt line from this inexcusably tired pseudo comedy.

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 30 May 2003 by Scott Morris
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Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) is a tax lawyer, and his life is every bit as exciting as that entails. His only real thrills come from online chats with a mysterious lass claiming to be a lawyer. In fact this turns out to be a just-released convict Charlene Morton (Queen Latifah), who is substantially blacker than he was expecting. Hilarity fails to ensue, unfortunately.

See, Peter is an uptight, upper-middle class white-collar straight-laced grey-haired fuddy-duddy, and Charlene is a streetwise ghetto talking take-no-crap-from-anybody large and in charge sissistah, honey. Quite why I'm supposed to care about the identikit characters was a question that sadly remained unanswered over the 100-and-odd minute span of unoriginality. Pretty much any comic potential for these kind of pairings was exhausted years ago in the Beverly Hills Cops and Lethal Weapon series, and just because they've been off the screens for more than five years doesn't give Hollywood execs an excuse to exhume the same tired premises that ought to have been left buried, even in a time of a notable originality drought.

Anyhow, Charlene wants Peter to reopen the investigation into her conviction, swearing blind she didn't do it. She blackmails, browbeats and badgers him into submission, largely by wandering round the neighbourhood shouting about how he's kicking her and their imaginary baby out and blah blah blah... and because Peter lives in an exclusive area where any negroes better be there to clean the pool then get straight the hell out, and because Peter cares more about what his neighbours think than do the sensible thing and get this woman thrown straight back in the jail, Peter eventually agrees.

Peter still has to keep up his day job, in this case trying to snag the prime account of Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright) for his multinational. She's an aged ol' dear, an embodiment of clich?. Racist, arrogant, snooty (played with an English accent, naturally), overbearing, annoying. This leads to no doubt theoretically hilarious scenes of Peter desperately trying to first ensure they never meet, then when this fails convincing Charlene to pretend to be his nanny. Oh yes, Peter is separated from his wife and rarely sees his two kids, as a result of his dedication to his job, spending more time with it than his family. He feels guilty over this and wishes things hadn't ended up like this. Would you like to take a guess how the film ends? If there's anything appearing to be original at this point, you can't have seen a great many films in your days.

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So we are 'treated' to various madcap pranks and pratfalls as Charlene and Peter eventually warm to each other, replete with the usual unlikely coincidence plot devices that occur with alarming frequency in the genre. Y'know, characters wandering in finding people in compromising situations despite it being entirely innocent, characters somehow managing to go to the same restaurant at the same time as others, inadvertent laxative ingestion, that sort of thing. No-doubt this is meant to be amusing.

The problem is, we've seen everything here many times before. You've heard the same jokes over and over. They weren't all that funny in the first place, and years of dilution haven't made them any better. Quite the opposite.

It's no exaggeration to say that there isn't a single joke in here that hasn't been seen before. To be fair, it isn't really doing better or worse than the many others, but there's just no potential left, it's all been strip-mined years ago, leaving this film barren, bereft, bankrupt, bollocks.

There are some bright spots, unfortunately not nearly enough of them. This is because they generally come from the supporting characters. Peter's neighbour Mrs. Kline (Betty White, from sitcom The Golden Girls and more recently Lake Placid) plays another uber-racist oldster, but gets a few utterly ridiculous lines in which are so absurdly racist as to be funny, rather than offensive. Queen Latifah herself shows promise, but not with this script backing it up. She does have one of the best cinematic bitch fights I've witnessed though, with Peter's skanky and sarky sister-in-law. Surprisingly they manage to avoid working a Matrix parody into it, but that hardly makes up for utilising every other clich? in the book.

Eugene Levy plays Howie, Peter's work colleague and has the sense to play his role almost completely straight. Levy has a strange charisma-less charisma, in that he takes roles which ought to be terrifically boring and makes them amusing. Here's no exception, despite the shaky premise of the role. He falls in love at first sight of Charlene, at makes occasional attempts at chatting her up with a variety of 'street' lines that any over-40 white lawyer has no business knowing. As he's not trying to yuk it up into an overblown joke, it's funny. Steve Martin however is not.

There's a difference of opinion over Steve Martin at theOneliner, a rare showing of disharmony. Everyone else hates him, I merely dislike him, recognising that I have found him funny in a few of his movies, like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bowfinger, The Man With Two Brains and a few others. Generally, given appropriate material he can be a very good straight man. When he's called on to act out the joke parts, he tends to fall flat on his face, in my humble opinion.

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Case in point : for the first half of the film he has little more to do than belittle Charlene and ask for translations of her gangsta speak. This isn't particularly funny, but in comparison to the horrors of the film's climax it's positively inspired. In a convoluted and largely tacked on plot twist concerning Charlene's old boyfriend having set her up, Peter infiltrates a particularly bangin' nightspot, dressed up in the finest b-boy outfits. Even looking at this travesty is offensive enough, but he has to make wit' da gangsta talk. Eeuugh. For some reason, the creators of this waste of celluloid decided to have Martin affect what I can only describe as a Gangster Pee-Wee Herman accent. Remember kids, it's not insulting because it's racism, it's insulting because it's terrifyingly unfunny.

If the talking wasn't bad enough, there is of course a chance for Stevie-boy to strut his not-very-funky stuff, more convoluted plot shenanigans involving Charlene being thought dead for a moment of pathos and Mrs. Arness getting stoned, because there's nothing funnier or more original than a very old lady going about declaring she has a frightful case of the munchies. Special mention goes to the films scoring, the main theme played often during the movie and growing more atrocious and intrusive each time.

I don't want to think about this any more, because the writers surely didn't. Comedy may be a subjective beast, and it's frankly ludicrous success in the U.S. seems to point at someone finding it funny. Damned if I did. This is a lowest common denominator, a collection of skits that someone though was funny elsewhere slapped together to create a wholly unoriginal beast. Banal and clich?d from beginning to end, this movie just does not deserve your hard earned cash or your valuable time. Please don't encourage Hollywood to continue 'treating' you to clunkers like this.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 1/5 TippyMarks.

Adam Shankman
Cast list:
Steve Martin (Peter Sanderson)
Queen Latifah (Charlene Morton)
Eugene Levy (Howie Rottman)
Joan Plowright (Mrs. Arness)
Jean Smart (Kate Sanderson)
Kimberly J. Brown (Sarah Sanderson)
Angus T. Jones (Georgey Sanderson)
Betty White (Mrs. Kline)