Queen Latifah is now an Academy Award nominee — a deserving one at that — and her ability at selling even the sorriest script is evident in Bringing Down the House, a white-meets-black comedy whose extreme blandness is made even more obvious by Latifah’s healthy glow. Co-star Steve Martin is positively loathsome as a workaholic lawyer with a constricted sphincter. Every time he opens his mouth or gives somebody a wheedling, pity-seeking look, Latifah bounds to the rescue with a beautiful smile and a mouthful of street wisdom. She always gets there a few seconds too late.
Latifah has done pretty much everything: talk show host, rapper, sitcom star, crossover hit. But there’s only so much she can do for House, in which she plays escaped (but innocent) convict Charlene alongside rich, white-bread lawyer Peter Sanderson (Martin), whom she has pegged as her savior after meeting him in an online chat room. House is meant to be fish-out-of-water funny as Charlene takes over Peter’s life and turns him into a hip-hop stranger in his own home, while she bonds with his kids and teaches him that just because she’s from a different background doesn’t mean she’s less of a person. Unfortunately, the film has spent all its laughs in trailers and commercials; what remains is a hollow bore-fest about as real as Charlene’s hair extensions.
Lending distraction to the miseducation of Sanderson are a pair of subplots. Charlene is determined to discover who’s responsible for her doing time for a robbery she didn’t commit, and Peter is on a mission to land a very wealthy client, heiress Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright, who gives an excruciating performance that includes singing a slave spiritual in a British accent). These both somehow culminate with a Sean John-clad Peter tracking down the culprit while Mrs. Arness smokes a phatty with a couple of black guys. Funny, huh? The only thing worse than Martin’s failed attempt (right down to the skully) at aping Warren Beatty’s hip-hop costume and intonation in 1997’s Bulworth is House’s score, which sounds like a cover collaboration of the theme to Driving Miss Daisy by Kenny G and Lawrence Welk.
What is the appeal of a movie like Bringing Down the House? We laugh at stereotypes when we recognize them in ourselves. But House offers generalizations so stereotypical that their punch lines are blown before the jokes even start. Dropping that recipe for disaster into a mundane plot is a terrible idea. Latifah is believable as a sistah; it’s the rest of the movie that brings new meaning to “oh, brother.”
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].