June 8, 2003 -- “Bringing Down the House” is an astonishingly successful comedy that is mean-spirited, dumb, tasteless and crude. Released at the perfect time, when the nation was starved for comedies, it made an amazing $130+ million at the box office. Kudos to Steve Martin (“Bowfinger”), a very smart guy, for choosing this script. He's laughing all the way to the bank. The audience isn't as lucky.
Martin stars as Peter Sanderson, an unhappy tax lawyer, recently divorced. He meets another lawyer online, a woman, and sets up a date with her. He is shocked when, instead of the skinny blonde he thinks he is dating, the large ex-con Charlene Morton (played by Queen Latifah of “Chicago”), turns up at his door instead. Charlene wants Sanderson to overturn her armed robbery conviction. Sanderson tries to ditch Morton, but she won't go away. She complicates his attempts to land a major new client for his law firm, a wealthy widow named Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright of “Tea with Mussolini”). Another lawyer at the firm, Howie Rottman (Eugene Levy of “American Pie”), falls hard for Morton. It's the old Hollywood bit about the street-smart black who rescues the up-tight WASP by giving him a little bit of soul.
Sanderson's ex-wife, Kate (Jean Smart of “Sweet Home Alabama”), his two children, Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown of “Tumbleweeds”) and Gregory (Angus T. Jones), his nosy neighbor, Mrs. Kline (Betty White of “Lake Placid”), Morton's boyfriend, Widow (Steve Harris of “Minority Report”), and Sanderson's evil, gold-digging ex-sister-in-law, Ashley (“Galaxy Quest”), all get into the act. The plot requires that just about all of the characters have to be idiots for it to work, and most of them are. Martin and Queen Latifah are about the only two characters in the film who appear to be at all rational. Character motivations are a problem. Once Rottman falls in love with Morton, she has her lawyer and no longer needs Sanderson, but she continues to cling to him anyway. The children act like actors instead of children. The script tries to make jokes of the overt racism expressed by Mrs. Arness and Mrs. Kline, but it comes across as very tasteless humor. Pyle's character is so aggressively boorish and contemptible it is hard to find much humor there, either. The fight sequence between Pyle's character and Latifah's character goes on way too long and isn't funny. The same for the tiresome plantation slave song rendition by Mrs. Arness. I was groaning through it all, and I thought it was never going to end.
There are some funny bits in the film and I did laugh from time to time, but I thought there were more misses than hits. The strongest character in the film, by far, was Morton, played by Queen Latifah. She's a tremendous actress, as she proved in “Chicago.” She had the best lines in “Bringing Down the House” and it was a part she seemed perfect for. She really nailed this role. The parts for Martin, and especially Levy, were underwritten and did not utilize their considerable comic talents. Steve Harris, better known for his role as a lawyer in TV's “The Practice” was effective in the film. There are a lot of good actors in this film. The good thing about this film's success is that they will get more work. I just hope they get better projects in the future. This film rates a C.
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