By Lindsay Utz
PHOTO COURTESY OF FULLER FILMS
Queen Latifah and Steve Martin star in the new comedy "Burning Down the House," in theatres Friday.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday March 6, 2003
Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) is an uptight tax attorney: divorced, stressed and unhappy · but jeez, what more does this guy need? He's got a brand new Mercedes and a stunning house in some really green suburb, so what the hell is he complaining about?
Wealth means nothing (right?) when you've forgotten how to enjoy the things money can't buy · like loving your children. This is what Peter needs to learn, but thank God "Bringing Down the House" isn't about all that sentimental crap. What this man needs is to be bitch-slapped and kicked in the groin a couple times.
Peter's only stimulating activity is to hang out in a chat room with his online mistress and romanticize about a future with her, the perfect woman. But when she shows up on his doorstep for their first date, he's jolted. Not only is she not blonde and skinny, she's big and black.
Charlene (Queen Latifah), a.k.a. "Lawyer Girl" (her buddy name) is really an ex-convict claiming she's innocent, looking for a lawyer to clear her name, and precisely the black mama Peter needs to teach him some lessons about life.
There's no stopping this "cocoa goddess." She waltzes onto the movie screen and into Peter's house like one big-breasted-brown-sugar mama to be reckoned with. Queen Latifah and Steve Martin make one of the most unlikely but uproarious duos ever. Really.
What's great about this movie is not simply Martin and Latifah, though, but the slew of supporting characters as well, each with their own quirky personality. Eugene Levy is hilarious as Peter's colleague Howie, who is wildly in love with Charlene, lusting after her with some pretty raunchy lines that would only be funny delivered brilliantly by Levy.
And there's Mrs. Arness, the multi-billion dollar client Peter is trying to win for his company, and her dog Shakespeare, who dons the playwright's signature ruffled collar. Mrs. Arness is the typical nose-in-the-air heiress, but she's so old-fashioned it's absurd. In a risque dinner scene, Latifah dresses as a slave and serves dinner as a favor to Peter, but almost whacks the old lady over the head when she starts singing a slave song at the table. It's so politically incorrect, like many of the scenes in this film, that you bite your lip, and even feel guilty about laughing. But it works because Latifah is always there, ready to make you pay for messing with the black folk.
In fact, one of the best scenes is when Peter's ex-sister-in-law, a money-grubbing snob who sleeps with geriatrics, messes with Latifah, and then the two kick each other's asses in a country club restroom. Latifah threatens the white girl, "I'm gonna beat the bulimia out of you." This is no hair-pulling and cat-scratching fight; they actually kick the living shit out of each other like two men in some campy action film. It's extraordinary.
Finally, there's Betty White, the shining Golden Girl (remember the television show?), who plays Mrs. Kline, Peter's neighbor, who is appalled by anything not Caucasian. She believes the only Mexicans that belong in her neighborhood are the ones driving the lawn mowers.
"Bringing Down the House" is really over the top without being stupid, which is hard to do without risking total absurdity. At times, however, "House" comes close to over-foolishness, but then there's some nicely timed anti-climax to even it all out again.
There was some woman down in the front row laughing so hard it sounded almost painful. I wondered if she had ruptured a spleen in her fit of violent laughter. And then I thought about how good her laughter sounded, and how nice it was to see a truly funny movie in a packed theater where everyone, not just the group of frat boys in the corner, was laughing.