Peter Sanderson is a divorced, straight-laced, uptight attorney who still loves his ex-wife and can't figure out what he did wrong to make her leave him. However, Peter's trying to move on, and he's smitten with a brainy, bombshell barrister he's been chatting with online. However, when she comes to his house for their first face-to-face, she isn't refined, isn't Ivy League, and isn't even a lawyer. Instead, it's Charlene, a prison escapee who's proclaiming her innocence and wants Peter to help her clear her name. But Peter wants nothing to do with her, prompting the loud and shocking Charlene to turn Peter's perfectly ordered life upside down, jeopardizing his effort to get back with his wife and woo a billion dollar client. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Tax lawyer Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) has been falling for Charlene Morton (Queen Latifah) over the Internet. She's sent him a picture of herself, but she was just a tiny figure in the background, being led out of a courthouse in jail clothes and cuffs by two cops, while in the foreground, there was a young, thin, white yuppie-looking female lawyer talking to a reporter. Sanderson believes that Charlene is the yuppie and arranges a date. Of course he's surprised at Charlene's appearance (Latifah is black, "thick" and streetwise in the film) and the fact that she's a con who has done time. Charlene's motivation is to acquire affordable, quality legal services to clean up her record--she swears she's innocent.
Ostensibly a film that would comically explore the serious issue of racism (and other kinds of appearance preconceptions) between two very different communities, Bringing Down the House is more a series of loosely tied gags. It plays like a sketch film, with the theme/subtext as a unifying factor. At that, the gags or sketches are mostly successful, although the film is not quite funny enough to work as an outrageous comedy and not quite serious enough to work as a "message film", even though it may occasionally come close on both accounts.
The three members of the principle cast--Martin, Latifah and Eugene Levy--are good, with Levy being underused, but for me, some of the best material arrived with the supporting cast. Joan Plowright as the wealthy Mrs. Arness, Kimberly J. Brown as Peter's former sister-in-law Sarah, and Betty White as Mrs. Kline, Peter's neighbor all routinely stole the show when they appeared. They were given the most outrageous material, with Arness and Kline being particularly racist. White's character is similar in tone to her excellent supporting role in Lake Placid (1999), although she was underused here.
For some, it may be an asset that the film tries to veer away from becoming cartoonish. I think it would have benefited from moving further into absurdist territory--for my tastes, even though Martin has had many great films, he has never surpassed The Jerk (1979), but that's too much of a personal preference for me to really count it as a flaw. It's also interesting that scripter Jason Filardi tries to work in a mostly serious crime/drama subplot towards the climax, but it's a bit too little, too late, and is an odd change of tone, even though the comedy bits surrounding the subplot are good. On the serious side, other than the material about racism, the strongest aspect is that Charlene teaches Peter how to be a better parent and family man. A couple scenes on that end were actually moving.
Overall, Bringing Down the House is a bit of a mixed bag, but approached as a light "sketch comedy/drama", it is entertaining. My rating occasionally leaned towards a 7, but remained closer to a 7.5 or 8.
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