Originally created 03/07/03

At the Movies: 'Bringing Down the House'



Queen Latifah oozes charisma and talent and absolutely deserves her supporting-actress Oscar nomination for playing prison matron Mama Morton in the musical "Chicago."

Which makes "Bringing Down the House" all the more baffling. Latifah not only co-stars in the movie, she's an executive producer and contributed music for the soundtrack.

What was it about this movie that compelled her to get involved so intimately? It couldn't have been the idea, which has been done at least twice in the past decade alone:

- "Housesitter," 1992. The premise: Con artist (Goldie Hawn) poses as the wife of an affluent suburbanite (Steve Martin) to weasel her way into his home. The tag line: "She came. She saw. She moved in."

- "Houseguest," 1995. The premise: Con artist (Sinbad) poses as the childhood friend of an affluent suburbanite (Phil Hartman) to weasel his way into his home. The tag line: "He came. He stayed. He ate."

Which brings us to "Bringing Down the House," 2003. The premise: Con artist (Latifah) poses as the Internet girlfriend of an affluent suburbanite (Martin, again) to weasel her way into his home. The tag line: "Everything he needed to know about life, she learned in prison." (Which is a little more original than the first two, but you get the point.)

The script from first-time screenwriter Jason Filardi, directed by Adam Shankman ("The Wedding Planner"), couldn't have been a huge selling point, either; it's chock full of outdated racial stereotypes. All the white people are uptight, racist WASPs, all the black people are ghetto fabulous, and none of them resembles a human being.

It starts out amusingly enough, albeit in a "You've Got Mail" sort of way. Tax attorney Peter Sanderson (Martin) is nervously preparing for his first date with Charlene Morton (Latifah), with whom he's conducted a giddy online affair. (He met her in a chat room for attorneys, where her screen name is "Lawyer Girl.")

This opening section is the only part that depicts reality in any form, as Peter and Charlene carefully choose their words to make themselves sound desirable. He describes himself as having "light hair," when it's actually gray. She writes about exercising for an hour, then working in the yard - which is what she does at the Los Angeles County Jail, where she's doing time for robbery.

But then Charlene busts out and shows up at Peter's house in all her bootylicious glory and insinuates herself in hopes of getting him to exonerate her. (He should have just called the police and had her hauled away immediately, but then there would have been no movie.)

It doesn't take long for her to throw a pool party that looks like something out of a Nelly video, with women dancing in string bikinis and men throwing dice and drinking 40s. Soon Peter's listening to rap music, and his even dorkier co-worker, Howie (Eugene Levy), is lusting after Charlene, whom he calls his "cocoa goddess."

Despite his initial disdain, Peter forms a friendship with this woman, chiefly because she functions as a Magical Black Person - a cinematic character, like Will Smith in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and Don Cheadle in "The Family Man," who swoops down, solves everyone's problems and provides clarity.

She becomes a big sister figure to Peter's teenage daughter (Kimberly J. Brown), teaches Peter's young son (Angus T. Jones) to read and helps Peter reconcile with his ex-wife (Jean Smart).

But Peter still must save face in front of his neighbors and clients, so he passes Charlene off as his nanny, maid or cook. The most uncomfortable example of this occurs when a wealthy, older client (Joan Plowright) comes to the house for dinner and belts out a Negro spiritual she'd heard one of the servants sing as a child.

No, this is not funny. And it doesn't get funnier when Peter goes to an all-black nightclub, dressed in baggy clothes with bling-bling draped around his pasty neck, and takes part in a break dancing contest. (This wasn't terribly amusing when Warren Beatty did a similar thing in "Bulworth" back in 1998, either.)

The funniest joke is one you've probably already heard repeatedly, because it's featured prominently in the TV commercials. If you haven't, here it is:

Peter's son asks him, "Daddy, what's a rack?" while reading a dirty magazine.

His response: "It's a country."

"Bringing Down the House," a Touchstone Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for language, sexual humor and drug content. Running time: 105 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.