You know Internet dating has become mainstream when Disney cranks out a bland comedy featuring a randomly selected pair of mismatched stars to take on the subject. The meaninglessly titled Bringing Down the House is predicated on the biggest pitfall of cyber flirting — that the person you’re communicating with may bear little actual resemblance to his or her self-description. Thus 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. Why else are you expected to laugh at the initial online conversation Peter (Martin) has with Charlene (Latifah), in which 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’s no surprise that the director is Adam Shankman, hack for hire responsible for The Wedding Planner and A Walk to Remember, both vehicles for pop divas (Jennifer Lopez and Mandy Moore, respectively). 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. The unfunny scenes, though, get played out — an extended catfight goes way past its welcome and offers no catharsis at the end.
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 (even sexy Latifah) is still considered a joke. Charlene instead gets paired with Eugene Levy, who is portrayed as a freak for being attracted to her. Of course, Peter helps Charlene try to prove she was framed, and she helps him become less uptight.
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. Martin has two different ways of talking Ebonics, and both are a scream: the overanalytical, enunciate-every-syllable “white guy” method; and the “pretending to be an actual homeboy” routine wherein he sounds literally retarded. Both are a riot, as is a scene that forces him to come up with an ersatz African-American name on the spot. Why, then, does Shankman feel the need to saddle Martin with a tiresome laxative gag and the umpteenth white-men-can’t-dance sequence? Probably for the same reason that he thinks Charlene calling Peter “P. Diddy” over and over is funny. Come to think of it, maybe the film’s title isn’t so meaningless; watching talented stars wasted like this is likely to bring down most people in the house.