Regal romp: Queen brings down the house

If Queen Latifah got an Oscar nomination for her minor role in Chicago, she deserves sainthood for what she does in Bringing down the House. This is an extraordinary entertainer whose singing styles include rap, jazz, and ballad standards and whose acting has an equal range.

Steve Martin took on the race thing in his first starring movie, The Jerk, and returns to it 24 years later to show we can still all laugh together, even if problems sometimes start when the laughter stops. Fortunately the laughter doesn't stop often in Bringing Down the House.

This comedy, as comedies will, uses a lot of stereotypes to make the point that you shouldn't expect everyone to conform to them. You may be expecting an "opposites attract" love story between the two stars, and there are moments when the movie appears headed in that direction, but it's actually more of a buddy comedy where two dissimilar people are changed for the better by the time they spend together.

Jason Filardi's script takes the approach that with good enough actors an audience will accept anything, so he starts with an improbable premise, piles on absurd complications, and sidesteps facts and logic when they get in his way. The result is sillier than it needs to be, but seems almost intelligent compared to most recent comedies, and the cast is good enough to make us take whatever they dish out.

At work, tax attorney Peter Sanderson (Martin) is fighting an annoyingly ambitious youngster (Michael Rosenbaum) to land a big account, Virginia Arness (Joan Plowright), who is described as "conservative... paranoid and suspicious." Peter's also about to have his first date with a woman he hooked up with in a chat room.

Charlene Morton (Latifah) isn't quite the blonde Caucasian attorney Peter was expecting, although she learned quite a bit about the law while spending the last four years in prison and can toss off phrases like "exculpatory evidence" as easily as ghetto slang. She wants Peter to get her case reopened and prove she was innocent of the armed robbery charge that led to her conviction.

He tries to get rid of her, but Charlene essentially blackmails him until she ends up posing as nanny to his children while their mother, Kate (Jean Smart), is vacationing with a young golf instructor. Peter's devotion to his work led to their divorce which, despite initial appearances, isn't working for either of them. The kids, 15-year-old Sarah (Kimberly J. Brown) and eight-year-old Georgey (Angus T. Jones) have problems too, but nothing living with a convict for a few days can't fix. If this ever becomes a series, they can call it Touched by a Hoochie Mama.

While Peter isn't a serious romantic prospect for Charlene, a colleague of his, Howie Rottman (Eugene Levy) may be. He's smitten with his first look at this "cocoa goddess," and she may be more than just amused by how "freaky" he is.

Missi Pyle plays Ashley, Kate's best friend and therefore Peter's worst enemy. When she and Charlene get into it, cat fight fans will be transported back to the golden days of Joan Collins and Linda Evans duking it out on Dynasty, although the use of stunt doubles has rarely been more obvious.

Martin hardly threatens to make Eminem expand his act to Emineminem but he does that Steve Martin thing better than anyone else, and Latifah proves that a big woman can be funny and sexy at the same time. Together they'll keep you laughing too much to care how many IQ points you drop in the course of the movie.