In the odd-couple comedy "Bringing Down the House," Queen Latifah plays a newly sprung convict who breaches the citadel of Steve Martin's power lawyer. The alliance of one of the funniest and most under-deployed comics in movies with the hip-hop diva, red hot off her Academy Award nomination for "Chicago," isn't just timely (they'll both be sauntering down the red carpet soon), it seems like comic kismet. Just the thought of Martin, who does uptight white guy better than anyone else, bouncing against Latifah's implacable wall of cool is irresistible.
And, for a while, resistance is futile, even unwanted. As Peter Sanderson, overburdened at work and remiss at home, Martin zips about with the sort of concentrated inattention to his personal life that will be familiar to everyone holding down a round-the-clock job. His children, Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown) and Georgey (Angus T. Jones), who live with their mother, Kate (Jean Smart), have grown used to Peter's broken promises, most recently a canceled snorkeling trip to Hawaii. Peter feels guilty (or says that he does), but he has other worries clouding his mind, principally Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright), a fussbudget heiress he's trying to wrangle during the day, and Lawyer-girl, an Internet flirtation he's never met but hopes to land at night. Enter Latifah.
Enter Latifah making good on Lawyer-girl's promise that she has "a very dark side." Enter Latifah with hair the texture and volume of a tumbleweed. Enter Latifah sporting the sort of women-in-prison outerwear (cut-off shorts, sleeveless shirt) that was de rigueur in drive-in classics like "The Big Doll House." Enter Latifah, an appealing performer who can hold her own against Martin as well as a scene-stealer like Eugene Levy, into a movie that desperately wants her hip, her edge and mostly her blackness but doesn't know what to do with the human being who comes with the package. Enter Latifah first in penitentiary wear, then in eye-popping duds that would make Christina Aguilera blush and, in one misbegotten scene, a maid's uniform; exit the audience cringing.
It isn't that you don't laugh -- it's that too often you wish you hadn't. The setup hatched by screenwriter Jason Filardi is as old and rich as the Hollywood Hills, but the comedy of mismatched partners works only if the laughs are at each player's expense. As a paroled prisoner, Eddie Murphy more than holds his own in "48 Hrs." because he can out-talk, out-joke and outwit Nick Nolte's garrulous cop. Charlene sasses Sanderson every which way, but somehow the joke is usually on her. Filardi and director Adam Shankman squeeze humor out of her looks, language and friends, mining entertainment from her nominal exoticism. And Sanderson? He's funny because he finds Charlene alternatively distasteful and scary. She may slip out of that maid's uniform but, despite Latifah's winning ways, the character is here to serve.
'Bringing Down the House'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for language, sexual humor and drug content
Times guidelines: mild adult language, sexual innuendo and pot smoking
Steve Martin...Peter Sanderson
Queen Latifah...Charlene Morton
Eugene Levy...Howie Rottman
Joan Plowright...Mrs. Arness
Touchstone Pictures presents a David Hoberman/Ashok Amritraj production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Adam Shankman. Writer Jason Filardi. Producers David Hoberman, Ashok Amritraj. Director of photography Julio Macat. Production designer Linda DeScenna. Editor Jerry Greenberg. Costume designer Pamela Withers-Chilton. Music Lalo Schifrin. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In general release.