It's Queen Latifah's moment. She's pulled down an Oscar nomination for playing a red hot mama in Chicago, and now she has a starring role in Bringing Down the House, a mainstream comedy that's designed to establish her box-office credibility. (She executive-produced the movie.) Her fellow rapper, Eminem, managed to get the job done in 8 Mile; we can expect 9 Mile in another year or so. But it remains to be seen whether Queen Latifah will bring down the house. With her capacious...everything, she certainly holds the screen. (In that sense, she kicks J. Lo's celebrated butt.) And with her busta-rhyming experience, she knows how to put a line of dialogue over. But as Charlene, a girl from the hood who terrorizes the upper echelons of L.A. WASPdom, she always seems to be holding something back. Her personality isn't quite as large as the rest of her. Then again, whose is? How do you personify an African queen?
Though amusing in places and willing to push all our racial buttons, Bringing Down the House is curiously old-fashioned. The premise alone ' Queen Latifah teaches Steve Martin how to shed some of that blinding whiteness ' sounds like a forgotten episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," or the kind of movie Whoopi Goldberg was doing back in the '80s. Martin's a wealthy tax attorney who's so absorbed in his work he's already let his wife slip away and is now canceling vacations with his kids. Then he meets Charlene through an Internet chat room. Needless to say, she isn't what he was expecting. But having just escaped from prison, she moves in anyway, taking Martin's life hostage until he agrees to help her with her case. ("I did time, baby, but I ain't do the crime," she says.) This leads to all sorts of black-and-white moments as Charlene teaches Martin's friends and neighbors a few lessons about racial relations.
As yet another white man who can't jump, Martin tries hard, maybe too hard, physicalizing every thought that enters his head. It's a brave performance, a reminder of what he pulled off in All of Me some 20 years ago, but the director, Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner), doesn't protect him enough. When Martin inevitably appears at a black nightclub in homeboy attire, we wonder whether those are the actual clothes that Warren Beatty wore in Bulworth when he got his groove on. There's maybe one scene where the movie gets a genuine wild hair up its butt ' a catfight between Queen Latifah and a skinny white woman who's spent a lot of time at Tai Bo classes. Otherwise, we're served a steady diet of whites doing black-speak, which was funny in Airplane! 30 years ago and on "Saturday Night Live" 20 years ago, less funny here. I barely cracked a smile when the great Eugene Levy said, "You got me straight trippin', Boo."
Likewise, the great Betty White seems wasted as Martin's cheerfully racist neighbor. It's supposed to be hilarious when this bigot turns on the spigot, but that's all she is, a bigot. Where's Archie Bunker when you need him?