Phat Chance

Steve Martin almost gets Down with Queen Latifah.

Bringing Down the House

You know Internet dating's become totally mainstream when Disney cranks out a bland comedy featuring a randomly selected pair of mismatched stars to take on the subject. Bearing the unwieldy and meaningless title Bringing Down the House, said comedy is predicated on the biggest pitfall of cyber-flirting, the idea that the actual person you're communicating with may bear little resemblance to what you imagined, based upon his or her self-description. Thus -- oopsy-daisy! -- a skinny white guy (Steve Martin) could end up suddenly meeting a fat black woman (Academy Award nominee Queen Latifah). Hilarity must ensue. No, really; that's an order, not a supposition.

So calculated is this film that most of its initial jokes are crafted with the assumption that you will already have seen the trailer, or at least given the poster a good looking-over. How else are you expected to laugh at the initial online conversation Peter (Martin) has with Charlene (Latifah), wherein she mentions that on the previous day she "poked around in the yard" and "visited with a girl down the block"? See, it's funny because she's in prison; the movie itself, however, has not told you that yet. It doesn't need to -- the filmmakers know that you'll already know.

The calculation should come as no surprise for director Adam Shankman, the hack-for-hire responsible for The Wedding Planner and A Walk to Remember, both of which served only as vehicles for pop divas Jennifer Lopez and Mandy Moore to prove (without much success) that they can carry a film. Here, he's working with a rap diva who doesn't need his help, which may be why he doesn't really bother to give any. Showing zero sense of pace or comedic timing, Shankman allows no joke any time to breathe, cutting to the next scene the millisecond a punch line's been uttered.

What can't be blamed on Shankman is the film's script (by first-timer Jason Filardi), which cops out of its already flimsy premise. Peter thought Charlene would be slender, white, and a fellow lawyer. She isn't. Do the mismatched twosome start realizing that beauty is more than skin deep, and that love can conquer all? Not exactly. Interracial dating may no longer be taboo onscreen, but dating an overweight woman is still considered a joke (though if anyone can make overweight look sexy, it's Latifah). Charlene instead gets paired up with Eugene Levy, who's portrayed as a freak for being attracted to her. Peter and Charlene do, of course, learn Valuable Life Lessons, but safe ones: He helps her try to prove she was framed; and she helps him become less uptight, so his estranged wife will like him again. Peter, like most movie dads, works overtime and is loathed by his family for it; Charlene, like most movie black people, knows the secret of loosening up and being cool that somehow eludes all Caucasians.

The movie's not without moments of genuine humor -- no comedy starring Steve Martin could be -- but sad to say, his Oscar-hosting gig two years ago was funnier than this.

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