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Talent outshines script

Tax attorney Peter Sanderson is a lonely man. A divorced workaholic, he can't make time for his two children, and the only woman in his life is Charlene, a fellow lawyer he met in an online chat room with whom he corresponds over the Internet.

We're predisposed to like Peter. He's played by Steve Martin and, well, Steve Martin is damned likable. Sure, Peter's filthy rich and he neglects his family and, well, he's a lawyer Ñ but when Martin scrunches his nose and twinkles his eyes, it's easy to overlook the character's obvious flaws.

Peter lives in a very Caucasian world. All of his lawyerly colleagues (including Michael Rosenbaum, Lex Luthor on 'Smallville,' wearing a very terrible wig) are WASPs and his bigoted neighbor (Betty White) happens to be the sister of one of his ultraconservative bosses. He even belongs to a country club É the kind where, you know, everybody's very, very white.

So it's quite the stunner when Peter sets up a meeting with Charlene, and she turns out to be very, very not white. In fact, she's Queen Latifah! And she's not a lawyer, she's an ex-con! And she needs help from Peter because she was framed for armed robbery and wants to clear her name!

Oh, the hilarity.

The script for 'Bring Down the House,' written by first-timer Jason Filardi, attempts to breathe life into the tired 'unwanted houseguest teaches a valuable life lesson' comedy genre by playing the wacky race card. And while Martin and Latifah are immensely likable, the tawdry use of racial stereotypes as the basis for the film's humor is discomfiting.

The fact that there are genuine, laugh-out-loud moments in the film are due exclusively to the talents of the cast Ñ Martin is at the top of his game, making even the most hackneyed dialogue sparkle through brilliant comedic timing, and Latifah brings humanity to the tired, abrasive-bimbo-with-a-heart-of-gold character.

Also on the plus side, Eugene Levy plays Peter's colleague, Howie, who's dazzled by Charlene's voluptuous charms. In a role that could have been a cringe-worthy disaster, Levy steals every one of his scenes, offering a welcome dose of colorblindness to this embarrassing throwback of a movie.

In spite of its occasional charms, 'House' is just another dumb comedy about uptight white folk being taught lessons by a shuckin'-and-jivin' Negro. Haven't we grown past this, yet?