Phat Chance

Steve Martin almost gets Down with Queen Latifah, but they mostly strike out

You know Internet dating's become totally mainstream when Disney cranks out a bland comedy featuring a randomly selected pair of mismatched stars to take on the subject. Bearing the unwieldy and meaningless title Bringing Down the House, said comedy is predicated on the biggest pitfall of cyber-flirting, the idea that the actual person you're communicating with may bear little resemblance to what you imagined based upon his or her self-description. Thus -- oopsy-daisy! -- a skinny white guy (Steve Martin) could end up suddenly meeting a fat black woman (Academy Award-nominee Queen Latifah). Hilarity must ensue. No, really; that's an order, not a supposition.

Director Adam Shankman is the hack for hire responsible for The Wedding Planner and A Walk to Remember, both of which served only as vehicles for pop divas Jennifer Lopez and Mandy Moore to prove (without much success) that they can carry a film. Here, he's working with a rap diva who doesn't need his help, which may be why he doesn't really bother to give it. Showing zero sense of pace or comedic timing, Shankman (or his editor?) allows no joke any time to breathe, cutting to the next scene the millisecond a punch line's been uttered. The unfunny scenes, though, get played out, notably an extended catfight scene that goes way past overstaying its welcome and doesn't even offer catharsis at the end.

What can't be blamed on Shankman is the film's script (by first-timer Jason Filardi), which cops out of its already-flimsy premise. Peter thought Charlene would be slender, white, and a fellow lawyer. She isn't. Do the mismatched twosome start realizing that beauty is more than skin deep and that love can conquer all? Not exactly. Interracial dating may no longer be taboo on-screen, but dating an overweight woman is still considered a joke (though if anyone can make overweight look sexy, it's Latifah). Charlene instead gets paired up with Eugene Levy, who's portrayed as a freak for being attracted to her. Peter and Charlene do of course learn valuable life lessons, but safe ones: He helps her try to prove she was framed, and she helps him become less uptight so his estranged wife will like him again. Peter, like most movie dads, works overtime and is loathed by his family for it; Charlene, like most movie black people, knows the secret of loosening up and being cool that somehow eludes all Caucasians.

The movie's not without moments of genuine humor -- no comedy starring Steve Martin could be -- but sad to say, his Oscar-hosting gig two years ago was funnier. Martin has two ways of talking Ebonics, and both are a scream: There's the overanalytical, enunciate-every-syllable "white guy" method, and the "pretending to be an actual homeboy" routine, wherein he sounds literally retarded. Both are a riot, as is the scene wherein he's forced to come up with an ersatz African-American name on the spot, and blurts out "Reverend Shack... tle... funt." Why, then, does Shankman feel the need to saddle him with yet another tiresome laxative gag and the umpteenth white-men-can't-dance sequence? Probably for the same reason that he thinks Charlene calling Peter "P. Diddy" over and over again is funny; i.e., the man has little concept of humor. Come to think of it, maybe the film's title isn't so meaningless; watching talented stars wasted like this is likely to bring down most people in the house.

 
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