Bringing Down the House

Bringing Down the House (12A)

There is a sly undercurrent of xenophobia and, more noticeably, overt racism in Steve Martin’s comeback vehicle, in which every white middle American’s nightmare comes true as blacks move into the neighbourhood.

In truth it’s more akin to Johnny Speight’s damning considerations of entrenched post-war British racism in the various Alf Garnett series, or the Pythons’ famous cartoon about two blackheads moving into a quiet suburban street and the neighbours, hidden behind lace curtains, shrieking “There they go – black as the Ace of Spades!”

It’s not as funny, or as clear cut in its irony, in Bringing Down the House, but certainly Martin and co-star Queen Latifah (recently Oscar nominated for her role in Chicago) have fun with the fears and secret paranoia of the middle classes.

In a part that allows him to toss off more than few wicked one-liners, Martin plays divorced and uptight attorney Peter Sanderson who finds love on the Internet. His first date turns out to be a nightmare when his cyber girlfriend, lawyergirl, turns out to be a black felon called Charlene with a conviction for armed robbery – a crime she claims she didn’t commit.

All she wants is for him to investigate her case and prove her innocence. All he wants is her out of his life as he builds up to the biggest job of his career – landing ageing, ultra conservative billionaire heiress Mrs Arness (Joan Plowright). As Charlene digs in her heels and Peter tries to juggle life, ex-wife, kids and a slimy work rival, the scene is set for a comedic culture clash.

Those who remember Steve Martin in films like The Man with Two Brains will lament his fall into mainstream fare like this, particularly as he appears to be the foil and Latifah, as Charlene, is the driving force behind most of the gags. Martin’s great gifts come via proactive comedy, and seeing him in the reactive role ensures his power is diluted.

Even the humour is lifted from a tired stable of stand-bys: white collar versus blue collar, white versus black, haves versus have-nots. Throw in Plowright’s righteous indignation, nosy neighbours (“Mandingo!” shouts one as Martin and Latifah engage in a tussle on the sofa) and Martin in “street” attire as he infiltrates a hip-hop club and Bringing Down the House rapidly becomes just another Hollywood studio comedy.

Yet there are flashes of the old Martin here. His reactions to Latifah – rapidly emerging as a performer of note – are considered, and his deadpan attempts at street talk – “Yes, I know your lingo!” he crows – along with lawyer pal Eugene Levy (the embarrassed father from the American Pie series, and the funniest element in this movie) are hilarious.

The film suffers from the subplot involving Plowright’s rich old lady and her pampered dog, and Jason Filardi’s script eventually runs out of steam, using Mrs Arness as a prop for the rest of the story rather than involving her fully. It’s time scriptwriters recognised that seeing old ladies swear and swap street colloquialisms isn’t really that funny.

Star rating: **

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