Bringing Down the House

| March 15, 2003

The story is summed up well enough by the previews, but if you haven’t seen any, here goes: Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) is a divorced, middle-aged tax attorney who has let work take over his life. He meets a woman online, strikes up a friendship, and eventually arranges a meeting. When that door opens, Sanderson discovers that all his mood music, candles, and champagne were in preparation of…Charlene Morton (Queen Latifah).
Sanderson is confused and angry, complaining that the photo Morton sent him was a dupe. She points out that he must have gotten completely hung up on the twiggy blond woman in the photo’s extreme foreground, and not noticed the large black woman who was being escorted into a police cruiser in the background.
Charlene’s plan is simple–to stick around Sanderson, intruding on his life until he agrees to help her reopen her case and clear her name. This matter is complicated further by Mrs. Kline (Betty White), Sanderson’s racist neighbor and his boss’s sister, and Ashley (Missi Pyle), his ex-wife’s uber-bitch of a sister. To top it all off, he’s in the middle of trying to hammer out a deal with Mrs. Arness, an eccentric and unforgiving British billionaire (Joan Plowright) who will bolt at the first sign of irregularity on Sanderson’s part.
Does Sanderson win the account, reconnect with his children, and win back his wife? Of course he does. It’s not the sort of movie where one wonders whether or not it will all pan out. Admittedly, the conflict resolution is a bit predictable. However, the journey is–in this case–definitely more than half the fun, and well worth it. My biggest complaint is that the movie really doesn’t justify to the audience why Martin would return to his wife (Jean Smart), who regulated to playing the straight character and just doesn’t seem as interesting as Latifah. She’s easily eclipsed by the other characters, but you can’t blame Smart for the writing.
The acting is solid, especially by Martin and Latifah. Martin always shines as the befuddled Everyman, and Latifah gives a performance that was both hilarious and genuine, not falling into the easy stereotype that would cheapen the movie’s message and shoot itself in the foot.
Missi Pyle and Eugene Levy (who plays Sanderson’s BBW-loving sidekick) are the perfect sidekicks. Pyle’s face is wonderfully elastic, and her Tae-Bo/ghetto fight against Latifah is laugh-out-loud funny. Eugene Levy inspires laughter every time he tries to woo Latifah with an appropriately urban comment.
Joan Plowright (technically Lady Olivier since 1961, when Olivier divorced Vivian Leigh) deserves a paragraph of her own for her performance as Mrs. Arness. Her slightly bulging eyes and demented Queen Elizabeth look work perfectly for the part. Her shining moment in the film is when she sings a blatantly racist Negro spiritual while Latifah stands behind her, trying not to throttle her.
The children (Angus T. Jones and Kimberly J. Brown) were a bit bland, but that’s forgivable enough–they were meant more as goals and walking conflicts for Sanderson to solve, rather than three-dimensional characters. Also, Brown resembles Mena Suvari to the point of distraction.
Bringing Down the House won’t win any awards, and there’s nothing shocking about the plot, but it’s a fun film. It proves that you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel if you can do clever things with the preexisting model.

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