Dir: Adam Shankman. US. 2003. 105mins.
Built around the odd-couple pairing of Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, Bringing Down the House is a black/white culture-clash comedy with some broad - and a couple of quite sharp - laughs but an old-fashioned, at times even complacent feel. However, the formula has worked at the US box office: Martin's abiding reputation and Latifah's rising profile - thanks to her best supporting actress Oscar nomination for Chicago - attracted a diverse and surprisingly big domestic audience when the Hyde Park/Touchstone production opened in the US last weekend with a $31.7m haul from 2,801 sites. Outside the US, box office may be limited by Martin's lesser pulling power and the film's American take on its race relations backdrop.
To play uptight LA tax attorney Peter Sanderson, Martin adopts his befuddled family man persona from cosy 1980s and 1990s comedies like Touchstone's Father Of The Bride. Separated from his wife (Smart, from Frasier) and losing touch with his kids, Peter finds what he thinks might be a suitable girlfriend on the Internet. But the pert white lawyer he expects to meet turns out to be Latifah's Charlene, a loud, black and proud prison escapee who wants Peter to clear her name.
To stop her from disrupting his orderly life, Peter takes on the case and lets Charlene assume the role of live-in nanny, but her presence draws attention from Peter's stuffy employers, his randy friend and colleague Howie (Levy, from American Pie) and wealthy potential client Mrs Arness (Plowright). Eventually - and predictably - some of Charlene's brassy spirit begins to rub off, helping Peter reassess his priorities and bring the family back together.
As directed by Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner) from a script by Jason Filardi (his first produced screenplay), the story unfolds in a gentle, restrained style that harks back to classic romantic comedies, an impression reinforced by Lalo Schifrin's pleasantly retro score. Peter's bemused reaction to Charlene's street slang is milked for easy laughs and Martin and Latifah go through some enjoyable physical comedy scenes.
Later, the comedy becomes edgier, as Charlene has to deal with the blithely racist attitudes of Peter's bitchy sister-in-law (Pyle), his bigoted neighbour (comedy veteran Betty White) and the forbidding Mrs Arness. The script does not shirk from political incorrectness and occasionally cuts effectively to the quick. More often, however, it falls back on easy caricature or obvious routines, as when Peter goes to a downtown hip-hop club 'disguised' in basketball vest, woolly hat and gold chains. It is less that the humour is offensive, though some audiences may object, more that it feels clumsy and outdated.
The actors sell the material better than it deserves. Martin, who has recently taken on more adventurous projects, is hardly stretched, but he puts his assured sense of comic timing to effective use. Latifah's energy and presence give an added charge to all her scenes and White and Plowright display their veterans' skills. The most enjoyable performance, however, comes from Levy, who makes Howie's apparently hopeless courtship of Charlene appear endearing and deliciously funny.
Prod cos: Touchstone Pictures, Hyde Park Entertainment
US dist: Buena Vista
Int'l dist: BVI
Exec prods: Jane Bartelme, Latifah
Prods: David Hoberman, Ashok Amritraj
Scr: Jason Filardi
Cinematography: Julio Macat
Prod des: Linda Descenna
Ed: Jerry Greenberg
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Main cast: Steve Martin, Latifah, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, Jean Smart, Betty White, Missy Pyle