Not to get too PC on his ass, but what kind of Spike Lee-riling bamboozle is Steve Martin up to in Bringing Down the House? Martin’s comedy persona is often that of an uptight white guy, constricted by his own WASPiness, who is saved from a dull future of gracious table manners by a wild-and-crazy gene he can’t hide beneath his silver-haired veneer. A little racial disruption is good for a Martin man – his feet get happy and he becomes more colorful in his own pale skin. In this coarse, poorly tuned comedy, however, the arrival of Queen Latifah, as a shrewd, jiggier-than-thou sistah, gets Martin’s character, Peter Sanderson, much too happy – he’s so deliriously delighted by the powers of black folks as emancipators of repressed ids that Martin has never looked so uncomfortably white in his career.
The Queen – large, lively, and resplendent in a parade of attitudinous fashions – plays Charlene, a quick-witted escaped con who meets Peter in an Internet chat room for lawyers, misrepresenting herself as the pointy alabaster blonde in the foreground of an attached digital photo, rather than the hollerin’ black lady handcuffed in the background. Peter, a status-conscious attorney and father of two, is bewildered by his recent divorce from his wife, Kate (Jean Smart); Charlene, meanwhile, is obsessed with reopening her case (she was in the big house for armed robbery) and wants Peter’s help to prove her innocence.
Stock farce characters and stale scenes of mayhem fill the downtime between the Martin-Latifah skirmishes: A racist British dowager (Joan Plowright) pampers her ugly dog but is rude to humans. Bling-bling-laden club gangstas live large. In one particularly unpleasant extended ”joke,” Charlene goes claw to claw with Kate’s gold-digging sister (Missi Pyle from ”Snow Days”) in a catfight and they slam each other with an ugly violence that KO’s audience laughter.
The movie – directed with no clear comedy POV by Adam Shankman (”The Wedding Planner”), from an overstructured screenplay by Jason Filardi – is meant to be broadly, incorrectly funny, a send-up of racial stereotypes. But with none of the satiric assurance of ”Bulworth,” and little of the looseness Martin brought to his far more hilarious brush with a black man in ”Bowfinger,” ”Bringing Down the House” is a colorless downer…with one great exception.
Eugene Levy plays Peter’s law-firm colleague Howie Rottman, and beneath Howie’s triple-square exterior bebops the soul of the hippest white man on two left feet. ”Swing it, you cocoa goddess!” Howie exclaims in awe when he lays eyes on Charlene’s bodacious booty, and from that moment he’s a goner, a man gloriously in touch with his authentic self, which happens to be that of…a brother. Howie’s arousal is the awakening of a truly uninhibited, sexually liberated man – the very ideal of Peter (and every quintessential Steve Martin character). In the otherwise uninspired ”Bringing Down the House,” Levy’s enlightened groove is straight-trippin’ genius.