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Review: 'House' divided between good and bad

Martin and Latifah make a good team, but have little to work with

By Paul Clinton

Martin and Latifah
Steve Martin and Queen Latifah make an odd couple in "Bringing Down the House."

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(CNN) -- "Bringing Down The House" is an OK comedy that could have been good, and with some extra work actually could have been great.

This is your standard "fish out of water" scenario where some outsider comes into a placid situation and shakes things up. Think "Ruthless People" (1986) or "The Ref" (1994).

Then, think again. "Bringing Down The House" has its moments, but doesn't go the distance like those two comedic classics.

Queen Latifah and Steve Martin are both very physical and do make a great comedic team. Latifah is even one of the executive producers of the film. Add that to her recent Oscar nomination for "Chicago," and you have a woman on the move in Hollywood.


Steve Martin -- who, along with Martin Mull, is about as white bread as you can get -- plays Peter Sanderson, an uptight, upright workaholic attorney who still loves his ex-wife, played by Jean Smart. Despite the torch he still carries, he decides to give dating a chance, and meets Charlene Morton, whom he believes to be a gorgeous Ivy League lawyer, in an Internet chat room. They arrange to meet at Peter's home for some wine and conversation.

House cast
Martin's friend, played by Eugene Levy, becomes sweet on Latifah in "Bringing Down the House."

When he opens the door, he gets a whole lot more than he bargained for. On his doorstep is Charlene (Latifah), who storms into his life like a Sherman tank, taking no prisoners. Not only did she lie about being an attorney, she's a fugitive from jail who is suddenly demanding that he clear her name of a false robbery charge and the subsequent conviction.

At the same time, Sanderson is wooing an eccentric billionaire client for his legal firm: the oh-so-proper and oh-so-traditional Mrs. Arness, played to perfection by Joan Plowright, who has some truly delightful moments in this film.

Inspired bits and tired bits

Needless to say, having a very large, very vocal convict harassing him night and day begins to complicate Sanderson's placid lifestyle. Some of the situations and some of the interplay between Latifah and Martin are genuinely funny; some are not. To the filmmakers' credit, they do go out on a limb and take some chances, even though they fail at times. Some of the racial humor is questionable, but never mean, and first-time screenwriter Jason Filardi is an equal opportunity offender -- everyone gets slammed.

Rosenbaum and Plowright
Joan Plowright (with Michael Rosenbaum) plays a dotty billionaire and provides several laughs, says critic Paul Clinton.

Betty White is quite funny as a bigoted neighbor, and Eugene Levy does a great turn as Peter's best friend who develops a major jones for Charlene.

Unfortunately, for every inspired moment there is a "paint-by-the-numbers" cliched situation, such as the impromptu pool party Charlene throws for her friends from "the 'hood," only to have Peter come home unexpectedly to a house full of strangers. How many times have you seen that tired bit?

Filardi's script is not as edgy and sharp as it could have been, and the situation is funny but feels too contrived to be organically funny. All that keeps this film afloat are the gallant performances by Martin, Latifah, Levy, Plowright and White. Diehard fans of any of these stars may be amused -- the movie is, at times, an amusing diversion -- but most will probably find it wanting.

"Bringing Down The House" opens nationwide on Friday, March 7, and is rated PG-13.

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