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It’s amazing that in the first years of the twenty-first century a picture so filled with crude stereotypes as this one could be produced by a major Hollywood studio and probably garner laughs from undemanding mainstream audiences. In its own “modern” way, “Bringing Down the House” is no less offensive than something as ancient as “Birth of A Nation.” The racial roles are reversed here–it’s the African-Americans who are invariably smart and comfortable with themselves and the whites (at least all the adults ones) who are foolish, inept and servile–but the pattern of having one group regularly humiliated by the other is the same. Compared to Adam Shankman’s movie, even an effort as heavy-handed as Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) seems positively enlightened.

Given that “House” teams the wit of Steve Martin with the sass of Queen Latifah, the fact that the combination results in such a limp squib is sad indeed; Jason Filardi’s eye-poppingly awful script and Shankman’s lax direction insure that the odd couple pairing fizzles instead of sending off sparks. Martin plays Peter Sanderson, a stressed-out tax attorney separated from his wife Kate (Jean Smart) but still doting on his kids, teen Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown) and darling tyke Georgey (Angus T. Jones). Just at the moment that he’s trying to outmaneuvre smarmy office rival Todd Gendler (Michael Rosenbaum) in landing the account of rich dowager Mrs. Arness (Joan Plowright), his home is invaded by Charlene Morton (Latifah), a jive-talking, take-no-prisoners ex-con who’s lured the stuffy lawyer into an internet date to get him to spearhead her appeal and prove that she was wrongly convicted of bank robbery. Sanderson resists, of course, but she proves far too canny and hip for him; besides, his office pal Howie (Eugene Levy) immediately gets the hots for her, and his kids quickly fall under her spell. There are further complications, some involving a horrendously bigoted neighbor (Betty White) who also happens to be the sister of Peter’s boss, some Sanderson’s shrewish, gold-digging sister-in-law Ashley (Missi Pyle), and still others Charlene’s old boyfriend Widow (Steve Harris). Needless to say, Peter and Charlene become friends as he takes up her case while she teaches him how to loosen up, live a little and reclaim his family.

Simplified like this, the picture might seem harmlessly stupid, but it’s not nearly so benign a bit of dumbness as that. It’s not that the spoofing of racial stereotyping can’t bear dividends: “Undercover Brother” walked the line between condescension and idiocy nicely only last year. But “Bringing Down the House” stumbles badly. Sanderson is such a clueless stick that even so adept a physical comedian as Martin can’t keep him from being anything but a hapless clown, and Latifah plays Charlene exactly as the caricature she is–the loud, abrasive but ultimately tender and unexpectedly intelligent Earth Mother who might cause all sorts of trouble but still takes time out to teach Georgey to read as well as Peter to dance. Levy does one-note shtick as Peter’s pal (though frankly it’s inconceivable that a guy like this–a sex-obsessed anti-WASP, who for some reason sends out a steady stream of street lingo in a droning monotone, would be employed in such a staid firm). But by far the most embarrassing turns come from Plowright, as a thoughtlessly prejudiced old broad who reminisces about her black childhood servants and dotes on an ugly dog but is immediately turned around by a couple puffs of marijuana; White, who’s forced to recycle her old Sue Ann Nivens character without the benefit of any funny lines (certainly her racial and homophobic slurs–this film tries to offend equally–don’t count); and Pyle, who has a fight scene with Latifah that’s bone-crunchingly terrible. (As for Rosenbaum, he’d be wise to stay in “Smallville.” He even looks better without the hair.) Visually the picture is glassy and overbright, the fault of mediocre production design and uninspired cinematography by Julio Mascat; Lalo Schifrin’s score is too bland to impress but too insistent to ignore.

In sum, despite all the comic talent involved, “Bringing Down the House” doesn’t.


Now that “Baywatch” has been relegated to rerun heaven, what’s an addict to do? He can fork over seven bucks and see much the same mixture of jiggly beachfront titillation, silly, sporadic action and ridiculously by-the-numbers storytelling–along with some nice scenery, a bevy of bronzed bodies and numerous large and impressive swells of sea–in “Blue Crush.” The picture is co-produced by Brian Grazer, who made last year’s Oscar-winner “A Beautiful Mind.” It would have been both symmetrical and very honest had he titled this bit of soggy melodramatic malarkey “Mindless.” The banality of the script is matched only by the ineptitude of the acting and direction, and all the shimmering waves and chiseled torsos on view aren’t sufficient compensation.

In the numbingly corny and insipid yarn set in Hawaii, Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth), a stunning blonde, works as a maid in a posh hotel with her two buddies Eden (Michelle Rodriguez, the rough-edged, sullen one) and Lena (Sanoe Lake, the perky, dimpled one). But her real ambition is to be a champion surfer: she’s training, under Eden’s demanding guidance, for an imminent competition in an area called the Pipe, for its habit of creating huge tunnel-like walls of water. But poor Anne Marie’s got troubles: not only is she forced to take care of her rebellious younger sister Penny (Mika Boorem) in her parents’ (unexplained) absence–shades of “Lilo & Stitch”–but she’s haunted by recollections of a surfing accident in which she was nearly killed (we’re subjected to repeated murky flashbacks of the incident to pound home the point). In addition, she falls for Matt Tollman (Matthew Davis), a sweet-natured hotel guest who just happens to be a vacationing NFL quarterback, and her dalliance with him reduces her ability to practice for the tournament–causing Eden to get really snarly. (She’s living her own dreams of glory through Anne Marie, you see.)

The script by Lizzy Weiss and John Stockwell is said to have been based on a magazine article by Susan Orlean called “Surf Girls of Maui” (which itself sounds like the moniker of a bad 1950s exploitation flick, released no doubt by American International); but it owes almost everything to the conventions of the cheapest young-adult melodrama. Despite the deep-ocean setting, it has all the profundity of a kiddie wading-pool. Much of the dialogue is soap opera boilerplate, and the plot contrivances are no better developed (wouldn’t you know there’s a Hawaiian hunk who once dated Anne Marie and takes umbrage at her showing Matt a beach “reserved for the locals,” leading to an obligatory fight?). The performances would be more at home on the tube, too. Bosworth is an attractive young thing–we get to see an awful lot of her stuffed into skimpy bikinis–but she’s embarrassingly amateurish doing anything beyond standing in some statuesque pose (even when riding her board). (Her giggles of delight when introduced to Matt’s palatial hotel room are sub-Sandra Dee.) Rodriguez pouts and sulks a lot–she’s becoming little more than a young version of Rosie Perez, though one can at least understand what she’s saying–and Davis (the object of Reese Witherspoon’s affection in “Legally Blonde”) doesn’t offer much beyond a bland smile and generalized niceness. The filmmakers try to extract laughs repeatedly from the sight of two obese African-Americans, Faizon Love and Shaun Robinson, frolicking about minimally clothed as slovenly teammates of Matt’s. The crassness of these moments is truly gruesome.

To be fair, “Blue Crush” has some nice cinematography by David Hennings: the surfing sequences at the close are pretty spectacular, though curiously many of the on-land scenes are disfigured by an excessive use of close-ups and the ragged, unfocused editing of Emma E. Hickox (while others come off like PR advertisements for the Hawaii Tourist Bureau). Otherwise the movie is a wipeout. You’d be much better off watching Stockwell’s “crazy/beautiful” from last year–a portrait of teen turmoil with some real dramatic punch beneath the glossy surface.