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Humor in 'House' Proves to Be Only Skin Deep

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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2003

"BRINGING DOWN the House" is exactly what it looks like: Steve Martin's white spazziness pitted against Queen Latifah's soul-sister omnipotence. Queen Latifah is one of the film's producers, by the way, so it wouldn't be spoiling things to tell you she wins every time.

Is it funny? Sure is, in many places. And let's face it, with a title like "Bringing Down the House," it's clear the point of this movie is enjoying loose laughter without too much scrutiny. But the sitcom shtick wears thin after a while.

Martin is the king of nerdy tics and facial contortions, and Latifah makes it her business to be the Queen of any moment she elbows her way into. Unfortunately, you've already seen most of the combustive results, thanks to the nauseatingly repetitive and gag-spoiling preview reel that has recently carpet-bombed television ad space and movie theaters.

Martin is lawyer Peter Sanderson, a lonely divorcé who gets in too deep with someone in an Internet chat room. He asks her on a date, believing she's an attractive Caucasian blonde. The doorbell rings and in walks Charlene Morton (Queen Latifah), an African American woman who doesn't have the most stellar civic record in the book. In fact, she's done a little time.

She wants him to appeal a court decision that branded her a criminal. But he refuses. In revenge, she starts to sabotage his life, which includes negotiating for kiddie time with ex-wife Kate (Jean Smart), keeping rich, dour client Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright) happy and avoiding nosy, racist neighbor Mrs. Kline (Betty White).

The movie goes into a frenzy of black and white jokes, gags and situations. There's an inevitable law of diminishing returns at work here. Soon enough, the racial angle becomes the tiresome basis of almost every joke; the movie resorts to sillier and cheaper ploys to keep going.

Meet Peter's impossibly one-dimensional sister-in-law, Ashley (Missi Pyle), a narcissistic model who courts old men so she can earn their inheritance and who calls Charlene racist names for no better reason than the beating this movie has in store for her. When Charlene corners her in the ladies' room to take care of butt-kicking business, things seem unnecessarily forced. It's a case of throw another white racist on the comic barbie. And when Mrs. Arness starts to get high and loose in the 'hood, this movie's all but over in terms of credibility.

But there's that scrutiny muscle getting all tight again. The main attraction is simply the crazy-couple casting of two watchable entertainers who give this "House" all the foundation and roof-raising they can. If anyone comes to this movie, it'll be for that and that alone. They should expect no more.

BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE (PG-13, 107 minutes) -- Contains risque racial humor, sexual situations and obscenity. Area theaters.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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