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Peter Sanderson thought he had it all figured out. A partner at a big tax firm, he’d worked non-stop to provide his wife and kids with a everything they could want. Peter (Steve Martin) had the best of intentions, but when he became oblivious to everything but the ring of his cell phone, his wife finally snapped and divorced him. Recovering from his divorce but still too caught up in the corporate rush to figure out what went wrong, he starts looking for love online.
Enter Charlene Morton (Queen Latifah). Unlike Peter, she does have it all figured out. The only thing holding her back is her armed robbery conviction.
After Peter and Charlene hit it off online, where she poses as a blond white lawyer, she breaks out of jail and arrives on the doorstep of his suburban home, revealing her true identity and insisting that he help expunge her record.After some pushing, shoving and intense partying, they finally strike a deal in the dining room of Peter’s Augusta-like country club: she’ll protect his reputation by pretending to be his nanny, and he’ll work around the clock on her case. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The formula of Bringing Down the House is old; it’s your basic Bagger Vance meets Mrs. Doubtfire. Lack of conceptual originality isn’t a problem, however, since the plot is of secondary importance to the brilliant comedic acting from all the cast members. Director Adam Shankman, whose previous work includes A Walk to Remember and The Wedding Planner, takes a much appreciated hands-off approach, letting the actors take the mediocre script to unexpected heights of hilarity.
Latifah and Martin are highly talented physical comedians; their facial expressions and perfectly timed actions bring down the house in scene after scene. They have great chemistry, although not the kind Peter’s neighbors suspect. This is Latifah’s first onscreen appearance as a leading lady, and she does not disappoint. She manages to overcome the sappy side of her love-seeking character, making Charlene a perfect but not stereotypical balance between lovable and tough.
As Howie, Peter’s nasal-voiced best friend, Eugene Levy lives up to the high caliber of his past performances in Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. Although his role is small, it’s crucial to the storyline and general message of the movie. Howie’s not ridiculing black culture with his speech patterns; he’s speaking from the heart, something Charlene eventually recognizes and appreciates.
Peter eventually achieves self-acceptance when he ventures into a dangerous situation disguised as a “brother” in one last, desperate and side-splitting attempt to prove Charlene’s innocence.
Other, more realistic situations, however, have a darker source of humor. There’s the neighbor who rushes out in the middle of the night armed with a gardening implement because she thought she heard a “Negro.” Peter’s elderly billionaire client Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright) fondly reminisces about Ivy, the unpaid black servant her family employed in her youth. These culture clashes, which provide much of the movie’s humor, have the potential to offend, but shouldn’t. Instead, these scenes highlight Peter’s willingness to let slide the racism which pervades his world.
Although Bringing Down the House has intelligent points and criticisms, it aims above all to make its audience laugh. In this, it succeeds overwhelmingly.
Bringing Down the House screens at Loews Boston Common at 11:30 a.m., 1, 2:05, 3:45, 4:45, 6:30. 7:30. 9:15, 10:15 and 11:40 p.m.
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