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Martin, Latifah Tackle Stereotypes in New Comedy <i>Bringing Down The House</i> - 2003-03-01

Oscar nominee Queen Latifah co-stars with the host of the March 23 Academy Awards telecast, Steve Martin, in a new comedy that pokes fun at social and racial prejudice. Alan Silverman has a look at Bringing Down The House.

Hip, streetwise ex-convict Charlene, a black woman, has been trading e-mails from prison with uptight, straightlaced white attorney Peter; but when she shows up at his door, she's n-o-t exactly what he was expecting.

They have absolutely nothing in common, but it is n-o-t romance that awaits them. It's better understanding of life and attitudes on both sides of the racial divide . . . once they can get over the language barrier.

Bringing Down The House ridicules ethnic stereotypes, both black and white, so it risks offending all kinds of audiences. However, Steve Martin, who plays Peter, believes comedy should run that risk.

"I think any time you break a taboo it can produce a lot of laughs," says Martin. "Sometimes there might be too much political correctness in the audience that would inhibit them; but the truth is whenever you tap that little thing that people are tired of, they'll laugh. They want out of it."

"People still might still get offended," adds Queen Latifah. "There's always that possibility and you can't please all the people all the time."

Queen Latifah plays Charlene, a character very familiar to the rap star-turned-actress from her youth in urban New Jersey.

"We're willing to take the chance with it. We know that it's a comedy. It's meant to be laughed at and n-o-t taken too seriously anyway," she says. " It's almost like you have to give the audience permission to go to the movie and laugh. Just go watch it and laugh, because it's funny and I'm willing to bet on the fact that you will laugh if you do go see it. The chances are you'll laugh more than you will be upset or angry about it."

Along with the verbal humor in Bringing Down The House, Martin welcomes the opportunity to showcase his "wild and crazy" skill with physical comedy.

I wasn't anxious in a sense like '. . . oh, I've got to do it.' It was fun and I didn't know it was going to be this physical," he says. " It just sort of worked out that way and I said 'what about this and this and this?' I knew that scene at the end in the nightclub was funny and things started rising that way."

Eventually Martin (as Peter) winds up dressed in baggy pants "gangsta" style and out on the dance floor at an inner city nightspot.

"I never considered myself a dancer, " says Martin, "but I can learn things by rote. In this case, it was easy. This was n-o-t choreographed dancing; this was just 'how insane can you go?' It was just fun and I didn't have to get a certain line or a 'Fred Astaire look.' It was just me."

Queen Latifah, who is also the film's executive producer, believes comedies can help confront bigotry.

"I think so. I think they show how ridiculous classism and racism is. That's the whole point," she says. " There's good and bad in everyone so let's laugh at it. Let's just make a joke of it all because some of it is such a joke."

Bringing Down The House also features droll Eugene Levy as Peter's love struck law partner; and genteel English actress Joan Plowright plays a wealthy client who learns how to have fun.