by Ed Symkus

When a film's previews make it look like a one note comedy, it usually is a one-note comedy. This one's previews make it look like Steve Martin's Peter Sanderson, a divorced tax lawyer, meets up with Queen Latifah's Charlene Morton, an ex-con who has tricked him into a date with her. It makes it look like all sorts of mayhem will be unleashed when the square white guy hooks up with the hip -- and possibly dangerous -- black gal. And it makes it look like all will work out well in the end.

Okay, he does indeed get tricked into a date with her (shades of The Shop Around the Corner and its remake, You've Got Mail), and mayhem is certainly unleashed, and all does work out well in the end. But none of this comes across or is played out in any way that even begins to be predictable.

Bringing Down the House is a fresh and funny movie that only seems to be derivative of other films. The two lead characters meet in cyberspace (he's lonely, she sounds interesting) then meet in person (he's befuddled, she appears to know what she's doing).

The movie starts to resemble the story of what this relationship will turn into on the road to one-note movieville, suddenly, though, the script starts to pick up steam with a bunch of different stories flying in from different angles. Some of them are slow starters (stately Joan Plowright is the rich woman Peter's company is trying to snag as an account); some are outright hilarious (every time Eugene Levy, as Peter's pal, makes a full-blown ogling appearance); others could easily have been left on the cutting room floor. The whole scenario of Betty White's racist neighbor character should have been nixed. She can be funny, but the material she's strapped with here isn't.

Even though Levy gets some of the biggest single laughs, the film owes everything to the natural comic timing of Latifah -- it's a good thing someone realized how funny she can be -- and to the comic brilliance of Martin. Here's a guy who's been making us laugh for 30 years (if you go back to the early TV stuff) and once again he proves that there aren't too many people who can deliver a mix of facial expressions and physical humor like he can. There's a point in this film, on a dance floor, where he dredges up the "wild and crazy" guy bit he's been doing for a couple of decades, and, amazingly, it still brings about a big, hearty laugh. Before you can blink, he's spouting black slang or screaming -- as only he can scream -- into a pillow.

The plot centers on the reason that Charlene managed to get together with Peter. She knows that he's a sharp fellow who understands the law, and she believes he can help her clear herself of some trumped-up charges hanging over her. In the middle of it all, there's plenty of good disposable story material that's visited briefly, makes a mark, and is gone. This could range from Peter's habit of making promises to his kids that he rarely keeps -- okay, so there's some clich & eacute; here -- to his discovery that his ex-wife (Jean Smart) has kept a secret from him (Martin somehow manages to be both stunned and subtle).

But the plot rests on the idea that Charlene is driving Peter nuts, just with her presence, and that she simply won't go away until he helps her. Of course, the only thing he wants is for her to go away. With all of its side ingredients, the whole thing movies along briskly. Director Adam Shankman has learned a lot about streamlining scenes since making his comparatively clunky The Wedding Planner. Yet there are times when either the slapstick gets a little too broad or the comedy suddenly stops in order to make room for a few serious elements: Peter's teenage daughter finds herself in a jam in an unnecessary side plot; a friend of Charlene's turns out not to be a very good friend.

But the strong points win out. There's hardly anyone here not to root for, so the quirky ending works nicely. The balance of black-white relationships make it something that's got all kinds of crossover potential. And any film that features a scene with a stoned-out Joan Plowright getting up on a table (one can only imagine what sort of performance ensues) has just got to be a winner.

Publication date: 03/06/03

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