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film: More Than Skin Deep

The comic fun of "Bringing Down the House" goes way beyond the colorful coupling of Steve Martin and Queen Latifah.

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Add to that the movie's sweet message about being open-minded, and when you aren't laughing, "Bringing Down the House" will certainly have you smiling.

Martin stars as Peter, a lonely, divorced tax attorney who's looking for something new and special in his life. The movie begins with Peter chatting online with a woman named Charlene, who he believes is a blonde, female, fellow lawyer. Soon enough, Peter and Charlene decide to move their relationship into real time and the two make a date to meet. As we know from the trailer, Peter has no idea that the real Charlene is Ms. Latifah, who's neither blonde nor an attorney. Peter struggles to be politically correct and keep his consternation under wraps, despite living in an upscale residential area where a neighbor comes bearing a weapon because she thought she "heard a Negro." Meanwhile, Charlene lays out why she was hanging out in a lawyers' chat room — she needs help clearing her criminal record as well as her name. Because, she tells Peter, "I'm innocent."

Cultural and racial differences may be at the center of the plot of "Bringing Down the House," but the movie's heart, thankfully, lies elsewhere. Although the film appears to explore only what would happen if a fish-out-of-water woman were placed into the life of an uptight and lonely older man, it also suggests that it's never too late to change or be accepting of change. Yes, this sounds cheesy and corny, but honestly, the movie never sinks to such a sappy level. Instead, the script allows the laughs to be the overriding experience. And boy, is this "House" filled with laughter. Much of the comic hijinks revolve around Charlene winning over Peter's family and gradually becoming a positive influence of his life, and with the brief occasions when Peter's best friend, Howie (Eugene Levy), hits on her by attempting to be "down" with the ghetto experience.

Martin and Latifah enjoy an on-screen chemistry that goes a long way toward seriously bringing down the house. Though from vastly different comic backgrounds and experiences, the two establish an easy division of their comic labors, handily sharing both the spotlight and the punch lines. While Martin gets to show off his kinder/gentler side, Latifah is downright adorable. "Bringing Down the House" allows her free reign when it comes to showing off a knack for both physical comedy and snappy dialogue. Although the latter may be constrained by the MPAA's PG-13 standards, the movie does offer undeniable proof that a movie can be hilarious without resorting to profanity, bodily fluids or generally grossing out the viewer.

"Bringing Down the House" may lack the sophisticated wit or social satire of Martin's best comedies, but when you're not wiping your eyes from chuckling so darn much, you're grinning from the sheer fact that duos as genuinely funny as Latifah and Martin don't come along all that often.

You won't learn anything significant about race relations, humanity or even yourself from watching "Bringing Down the House," but you will have a good time. **** S

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