Yo, yo, dig this righteous story about an ol' ofay who gets to cribbin' with a dope lassie from da hood who schools him about homies and gets his freak on so he gives her some props without becoming his boo.
If you found the above paragraph painful to read, you're likely to experience similar feelings about "Bringing Down the House." This new comedy stars Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, and the filmmakers should be sending them lavish flower arrangements every day until the apocalypse, because without the goodwill they engender amidst the abundance of misguided racial humor and misapplied ebonics, movie screens might suffer an epidemic of shoe-shaped dents.
Martin and Latifah play a mismatched couple of sorts. He's a tax lawyer named Peter Sanderson who thinks he's met a brainy female attorney on-line -- a shapely blond one, according to the picture she sends. But when she shows up at his house for a date, she turns out to be an escaped convict named Charlene Morton, who happens to be African-American and wake-the-neighbors obnoxious.
Charlene wants Peter to help her prove her innocence of the armed robbery that landed her behind bars. He just wants her out of his house.
This is problem No. 1: In screwball comedies we're supposed to root for the quirky, loose-cannon female who ruffles the starched-collared man, like Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" or even Melanie Griffith in "Something Wild." But here we just feel sorry for Peter, who's victimized by a romantic bait-and-switch and must put up with an abrasive home invader who screams about bearing his love child until he submits.
The rigid formula of such movies, studied to a fault by first-time screenwriter Jason Filardi, calls for Peter and the rest of us to warm up to Charlene. Peter's wife Kate (Jean Smart) divorced him because work has been his first priority and he can't resist answering his cell phone. When his teenage daughter Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown) and younger son Georgey (Angus T. Jones) arrive to stay with him for a week, guess who's there to school him about being a cooler dad?
Corniness and predictability are defining characteristics of "Bringing Down the House," just as they were of director Adam Shankman's previous comedy, "The Wedding Planner." But what truly distinguishes the new movie is its take on racial issues. The movie makes a show of puncturing supposedly common assumptions, such as how Charlene's jive-talkin', head-boppin' routine can coexist with a sharp mind -- not that this idea is particularly radical or new.
But "Bringing Down the House" leans on just as many stereotypes as it tweaks. The movie's black people generally are loudmouths and/or hoods, and most of the white folks are Wonder Bread bland or flat-out racist, including not one but two elderly women.
Peter's nosy neighbor, played by Betty White, is so shocked by the sight of a black woman on their block that Charlene must be covered up and sneaked into Peter's house. Peter also is trying to land the billion-dollar business of an heiress, played in a true dignity drop by Joan Plowright, who fondly recalls her ancestors' slaves while Charlene, posing as Peter's cook, fumes.
Meanwhile, Peter's former sister-in-law, Ashley (Missi Pyle), is irrationally hostile toward Charlene. The two ultimately engage in a distastefully violent locker-room brawl, although it ends on an undeniably funny note.
A smart comedy could be made based on whites' misconceptions about blacks, but the filmmakers consistently take the cheap, easy route of propping up Charlene by pitting her against folks whose white sheets probably have eyeholes.
The one notable exception is Eugene Levy, who delivers the movie's funniest performance as Peter's buttoned-up colleague. Levy's character is so hot for Charlene that he lapses into hip-hop love lingo every time he encounters her. Levy and Latifah make an inspired odd pairing, yet even though the movie is devoted to twitting uptight white folks, it's too squeamish to include even one interracial kiss.
The movie certainly doesn't know what to do with Latifah's sexuality except to objectify her voluptuousness while draining her of the seductiveness she displayed in "Chicago." Her body is treated like just another sight gag. When Martin is called upon to squeeze her breasts, the moment carries no sexual charge, instead provoking twinges of embarrassment.
Still, once Latifah tones down Charlene's early shrillness, her innate warmth comes through, and Martin never betrays a sense that the material isn't up to his own intelligence level. He also reminds us of his physical comedy gifts, particularly in a loose-limbed hip-hop dance routine he performs while visiting a nightclub in the 'hood. But he doesn't make us forget that he covered similar territory in his first leading role, "The Jerk."
Viewers may be more likely to ride with Martin's and Latifah's good vibes than to analyze the lunkheaded racial politics, but very little is fresh here. The movie includes several gags that I'd love to have banned from all future comedies: Someone gets thrown into a pool, someone smokes pot and becomes insanely uninhibited (Plowright, poor gal), someone gets accidentally kicked in the groin, someone has a laxative slipped into his food. Then there are the obligatory cute dog reaction shots, and a criminal getting caught via the secret taping of his confession -- a plot twist unseen since "Old School."
1 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Bringing Down the House"
Directed by Adam Shankman; written by Jason Filardi; photographed by Julio Ma cat; edited by Jerry Greenberg; music by Lalo Schifrin; produced by David Hoberman, Ashok Amritraj. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday, March 7. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language, sexual humor, drug content).
Peter Sanderson -- Steve Martin
Charlene Morton -- Queen Latifah
Howie Rottman -- Eugene Levy
Mrs. Arness -- Joan Plowright
Kate -- Jean Smart Sarah Sanderson -- Kimberly J. Brown
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun