Bleak 'House'

"Bringing Down the House" is what Hollywood calls a high-concept picture, milking an evening's worth of comedy from a one-line premise: likable white lawyer (Steve Martin) meets earthy black ex-convict (Queen Latifah), who won't stop pestering him until he helps her clear her name.

The movie's director, Adam Shankman, has called Ms. Latifah a one-person NAACP, and she reportedly worked hard to scrub offensive racist elements from the original script.

That script must have been a humdinger, because even the sanitized version plays like a minstrel show at times - in a party scene near the end, for instance, where Mr. Martin visits an African-American nightclub duded up in ghetto-style gear.

But sensitivity is hardly this movie's strong point. Another cringe-inducing scene features a fistfight between Latifah and Missi Pyle as the lawyer's sister-in-law, about as funny as the bruises they inflict on each other. This episode doesn't even try for clever twists, assuming the spectacle of women behaving like action-movie menfolk is hilarious by itself.

The movie's real spectacle is the sight of so many talented people slogging through such idiotic material. Martin is a highly creative humorist and Latifah's screen presence is too strong for the worst story to completely squelch.

What are tried-and-true entertainers like these doing in a brain-dead farce like this? The mystery grows deeper when you check out the good supporting cast. Eugene Levy plays a lonely attorney who fancies his partner's nemesis from the moment he sees her. Betty White plays a goofy, nosey neighbor with a "Golden Girls" giggle. They seem at least partly in tune with their roles, but not even that much can be said of Joan Plowright, a fine actress stuck with prudish-old-lady clichés.

Or maybe there's no mystery at all. I saw the film with a Saturday-night preview audience who laughed almost all the way through, signaling the kind of successful box office that has tempted generations of skilled actors into projects perilously beneath their dignity.

If this showing was an accurate preview, the misused cast of "Bringing Down the House" will be chuckling all the way to the bank. The way Hollywood sees it, that's the highest concept of them all.

Rated PG-13; contains violence, sexual jokes, and bathroom humor.

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