Bringing the ‘90s back is hard work. So hard this new House Party reboot only gets half the job done. But when it’s on, it’s on.
For those who were in a drug induced comma during 1990 (you know who you are), the duo Kid ‘n Play (Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin) threw a House Party that brought hip hop joy to the masses. How popular was it? Three more HP films followed. The event planners behind this ’23 party remix are equally ambitious. They hired Grammy-winning music director Calmatic (real name Charles Kid II, winner Best Music Video for Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”) to helm a project written by Atlanta co-writers Jamal Olori & Stephen Glover. The pedigree is there, what about the attention to details?
Damon (Tosin Cole, Till) and Kevin (Jacob Latimore (The Chi) have been friends since childhood and losers forever. In Los Angeles, you’re either rich or poor, and these struggling party promoters are broke bros. Their daytime grind is working for a house cleaning company. Swabbing toilets. sweeping up, dusting, throwing out the garbage… They dream big, but their game is small.
Kev is desperate to pay for his young daughter’s tuition and his baby moma pressures him to come up with $10K. Typically, Damon (pretentiously pronounced da-MON) finds ways to solve Kev’s problems, but most often gets him into more trouble. His not-so-smart idea this time? Why don’t they throw a big, money-making, superstar-invited house party in the mansion they’re currently cleaning? The owner will be gone for two weeks, they’ll hire security, rope-off the fancy rooms and clean up. What could go wrong? For starters, the villa belongs to LeBron James—and his ego. Plus, someone could call the cops. Right?
The premise is ripe for comedy. The script sets the stage: challenges, solutions and worst possible outcomes. Quirky hip-hop characters are assembled, and they all blossom. Kev’s lost love Venus (Karen Obilom, Doom Patrol) is his boss at the cleaning service, and their sexual tension is burning hot. Her gal pal Mika (Shakira Ja’nai Paye), a modern, quintessential soul sister (colored hair, fake eyelashes, long fancy fingernails), is onboard.
Add in a crazed DJ (comedian D.C. Young Fly), a spiritual advisor with ties to the Illuminati named Cudi (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi) and a nosy white neighbor (Andrew Santino) with a roaming pet Koala bear and the casting is just crazed. Star-studded cameos (Mya, L.A. Lakers’ Anthony Davis, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, Odell Beckham Jr.) are icing on the cake.
All the good ingredients are in place. So, what’s the rub? At 1h 40m the footage is too long. Too many lapses and dead spots. Too many scenes needed to be clipped to their core (editor Matthew Barbato, Dave). In a beginning sequence, three rival menacing party promoters (Rotimi, Allen Maldonado, Melvin Gregg) harass and beat up the boys. They’re silly, goofy antagonists, but their over-extended improv antics kill momentum and needed to be trimmed. Anyone who’s seen the perfectly timed HP trailer will grow impatient. Anyone who remembers the tightly paced Girls Trip knows that short, succinct scenes are key.
On the other hand, the screenplay and direction have their moments. The dialogue can be hysterical, especially when it’s delivered by actors who go for it. E.g., Damon’s Aunt Jean (Renata Walsh) bitches about his dirty room: “Clean up this room. It smells like ass and onions in here… don’t make me get my gun!”
Calmatic is successful with sight gags, physical pranks and the dance offs in party scenes. Though the crux of the movie takes place at LeBron’s place, the most outrageous wacky stuff comes in a sequence where Cudi takes the duo to an underground, secret-society world populated by weird Caligula-looking people. The debauchery, depravity and horrific violence on view are so funny viewers will lose their lunch, spill their drinks or gag on their weed. That’s the frustration with this update. It could have been better, tighter, funnier and even more frenzied.
Problems with the script and direction aside, the production team is stellar. The colors pop (art director Frances Lynn Hernandez), the sets—from Damon’s stanky room to LeBron’s trophy man cave—greatly reflect Hollywood’s rags or riches stories (production designer Scott Falconer; set decorators Laura Harper and Maya Levy). The clothes are ghetto hip, star chaser flashy or glamorous according to the characters (costumes by Derica Cole Washington, Zola). Audiences will live for the music (music supervisor Keir Lehman, Queen &Slim; composer Oak Felder The United States vs. Billie Holiday). And it’s all perfectly lit and shot (cinematographer Andrew Huebscher).
Cole and Latimore fit together well and if their dialogue was shorter, they’d shine brighter. Obilom, Paye, Cudi and Santino make their marks and claim their turf too. Hard to believe LeBron James can hold down his part of the screen, but he does.
Overall, this movie knows how to talk to its demographics (young, urban and don’t give a —-). If first-time feature film director Calmatic, the screenwriters and producers (including James) learn from their mistakes and achievements, audiences will R.S.V.P. to future House Parties—even if they’re on streaming services and not in theaters.
In truth, this new HP didn’t bring back the ‘90s. It’s trying to funk up the 2020s!
In theaters January 13th.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.