House a racial comedy for whole family

Steve Martin has made a lot of funny movies. Queen Latifah has made a lot of funny scenes in movies. But hearing about them in a picture together conjures up the image of a studio executive sitting in his office, all alone, desperately trying to find a black-and-white comedy permutation that hasn’t been dreamed up to make money.

Brining Down the House shatters that image, and breaks new ground for comedy movies made in the “racial humor” genre.

Martin is Peter, a typical California tax lawyer, divorced and remarried to his job. This is all the exposition we are offered, as the opening heavily relies on trailers for background and opening comedy.

There is not a clear picture of what is “wrong” with Peter’s life, or against what framework the jokes will be set. The film really begins with the entrance of Charlene (Latifah), who tricks Peter into letting her live with him while he works on her court case. Apparently, Charlene was wrongly convicted of armed robbery, and, after serving her time, she wants her record expunged. Somehow, Peter does not realize while working on her case that Charlene is actually an escaped felon — but if he did, there would be no movie, would there?

So Charlene stays, she meets Peter’s ex-wife (Jean Smart), his best buddy (Eugene Levy, who proves he is still a viable character actor, albeit here struck with jungle fever) and his prying neighbor (Betty White as a charming racist, if that is possible).

All of the actors here play off each other well, and the comedy moves along nicely without going over the top. It jokes about what Peter’s uptight clients are like, including the cliché about a big account that he must land, and a banter with his gold-digging, racist, (ex) sister-in-law.

Toward the end, the narrative is stretched out into farce, but the humor keeps the pace while keeping Martin from looking like the butt of the jokes (or a complete jackass).

Critical wounds from plot-holes aside, what the film does best is give Martin a chance to use his cherished personal comedy in a film that also gives a stage to Latifah, who is an excellent actress and comedian.

Some of the best scenes are based on physical comedy, one being an original fight scene between Latifah’s character and the racist sister-in-law.

What may seem to some like an unfunny train wreck of a movie waiting to crash into a theater near you actually passes the time quite nicely. It makes room for itself in the category of movies funny enough to watch with friends and conservative enough for younger audiences.

Comedy, PG-13, Running time: 105 min.

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