If the idea of Betty White calling a little boy a homosexual slur sounds hilarious to you, stop reading and go see "Bringing Down the House" (IMDb listing).
Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) is an uptight tax lawyer looking to heal the wounds of his recent separation with a little online dating. When he strikes up a connection in a chat room with a fellow lawyer named Charlene (Queen Latifah), he invites the unknown woman over to his house for a date, and meets the real woman behind the keyboard: a gangsta who's recently gotten out of jail and wants Peter to help clear her name. Freaked out at the thought of having such an uncivilized woman in his upper class, white lifestyle, he agrees to her demands just to get her out of his life. But as Charlene starts to ingratiate herself with Peter's kids and co-workers, he begins to learn valuable lessons from the urban-inclined woman that can help him loosen up and live his life differently.
For those of you who find no amusement in Betty White profanity or culture-clash humor, I can say that "Bringing Down the House" isn't nearly as bad as it sounds. The film is at best 10 years too late, with the hip-hop nation now having grown to dominate the landscape of popular culture. But "House" isn't interested in truly representing the culture today. It's a farce -- borderline unwatchable at times, gut-bustingly funny at others -- but it's a strange picture that tries so hard to make stereotypes funny that I watched with bewilderment as to where it would go to next.
Since "House" is such a cumbersome, harmless picture, I looked past its appalling stereotypes of African Americans, presented as thugged-out urban dwellers, and the caucasian characters, who are written as uptight, racially (and apparently sexually) insensitive wackos. This kind of racial comedy was a cornerstone for many films of the 1970s, but in 2003, "House" feels dated. It's hardly edgy stuff for most audiences, and tries way too hard to be goofy so as not to attract attention in this politically correct society. I admire the attempt more than I can enjoy it, and "House" only seems to be funny when it isn't forcing itself onto the funny bone.
One of director Adam Shankman's previous films was the 2001 Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy, "The Wedding Planner," which also had a similarly weak collection of jokes directed by a man who doesn't quite understand that nothing is working. Shankman has little flair for selling the outrageous moments of this story, with the lion's share of the laughs coming from the fine comedic cast who are just simply doing their thing.
Thank God for Steve Martin. Sure, Martin hasn't always been reliable. Frankly, he's coming straight off one of his worst films in years with 2001's "Novocaine." But in "House," Martin returns to his sillier days, when mugging for the camera wasn't such an unpleasant thing. He's almost channeling Homer Simpson at points during the film. He's funny here, playing up the tight-ass white lawyer routine with gusto, and letting his tricky tongue roll over the hip-hop speak without it getting too far out of hand. He shares a nice, and completely unpredicted chemistry with co-star Latifah, with the two making for a comfy comedic couple (and hilarious dancing partners). Latifah (also one of the film's producers) gets a chance to sparkle, with this role coming right after her Oscar-nominated turn in "Chicago." She's grown unbelievably in these last two performances, shedding the clumsy stiffness that hindered her acting before. These two performers, along with the always reliable Eugene Levy, erase the ugliness and mechanical, suburban nature of this film while they're onscreen.
Shankman and screenwriter Jason Filardi do falter wholeheartedly with their third act, which features some exhausted laxative jokes and 'hood nightclub gunfire. It takes the gentle nature right out of "Bringing Down the House," and returns the film to where it began: a concept that's long past its expiration date.
Filmfodder Grade: C