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Steve Martin, Latifah bring down the house

March 07, 2003 19:22 IST

The kid who has just seen a dirty magazine wants to know more. A still from Bringing Down The House

"Daddy, what's a rack?" he asks. "It's a country," shoots back the father played by Steve Martin.

Some people may think the joke that was prominently played in the trailer for the comedy, Bringing Down The House, is the only funny line in the film.

In a way, it is true.

Yet the film, which thrives on contrived situations, is still enjoyable, thanks to spirited performances by Martin as the strait-laced corporate lawyer and Queen Latifah as the feisty ex-con who will not take a 'no' from him, and who ends up radically changing his life. As their relationship grows, the film turns into an unusual buddy movie involving an older white male and a younger black woman.

Latifah, who offered a charming performance as the wily jail warden in the smash hit, Chicago, where she held her own despite strong performances by Rene Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is not as alluring here.

But she does turn in an engaging and boisterous performance in Bringing Down... Its tagline: Everything he needed to know about life, she learned in prison. Latifah, the executive producer of the film, is also heard on its soundtrack.

While this could be the second hit in a row for Latifah, for Martin, who has gone without a solid hit for over five years, Bringing Down... offers a lot of opportunities for a physical comedy -- and an opportunity to win back millions of fans.

Judging by the reaction of preview audiences, Bringing Down... could become a sizeable hit. It could also become the highest grossing film in the nearly two decade-old movie-producing career of Ashok Amritraj who co-produced it for Touchstone Pictures.A still from Bringing Down The House

Peter Sanderson (Martin), who has been charmed by an attractive online acquaintance, invites her to his home. Flirting with her online is different from seeing her in flesh, and he is naturally antsy. Having met her in a chat room for lawyers, he learns she is heavily into physical fitness and has been exercising in the yard.

Imagine then his shock on seeing a big-made black woman, Charlene Morton, instead. There is no mistake, she insists. Soon you hear her telling Sanderson she had been wrongly imprisoned and he should clear her name. The 'yard' she had been speaking about was the Los Angeles prison where she had been serving a sentence for robbery.

Crying deception, Sanderson kicks her out, only to find she will not a take a no. The script becomes increasingly predictable thereafter, as it contrives situations so that Morton can turn up, not only embarrassing Sanderson but also weakening his resolve to keep her out of his life. Before he gives into her demands, she turns up at his house party and embarrasses him by popping up at a powerhouse business meeting.

The best moments in the film come when Sanderson agrees to a 'date' with Morton and, suddenly, all the rules he has been faithfully following are tossed out, as Morton takes him on a wild trip.

Soon, first time scriptwriter Jason Filardi and director Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner) try to inject family values amidst the hilarity.

Morton tries to remake the lives, helping Sanderson's teenaged daughter out of a tricky problem. She helps his son read better -- and she is getting ready to help Morton reconcile with his ex-wife.

Bringing Down... begins to lose its charm considerably in the second half. Some of the comic situations just don't fly. For instance, the scenes when a wealthy and elderly white woman (British actress Joan Plowright, Laurence Olivier's widow, who is thoroughly wasted) comes to Morton's home for dinner and sings a Negro spiritual she had heard when she was a child. At a New York preview, about one third of the audience laughed. But when they waA still from Bringing Down The Housetched many other sequences, they nearly brought down the house.

The climax, in which Sanderson puts on a tough act to trace and humble the men who had set Morton up is another disappointment.

Filardi and Shankman fail to maintain the comic tempo. For a big part of the film, we crave for more comedy and farce, funnier lines and animated performances from others in the cast. Yet because of the energy and enthusiasm exuded by Martin and Latifah, the film rises above many recent comedies.

Arthur J Pais