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MOVIE REVIEW : Rite of Teen-Age Passage in 'House Party'

March 09, 1990|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

The actors in "House Party" (citywide), a catchy, often hilarious teen-age sex comedy set in an all-black milieu, seem to think musically. That's hardly surprising. The cast includes two rap groups, Kid 'n Play and Full Force, as heroes and villains, and two actress-dancers, A. J. Johnson and Tisha Campbell as female leads. The major adult character, Robin Harris' Pops, is a stand-up comic, a wizard at slow, nasty timing.

And "House Party" has been shaped by its makers--the team of writer-director Reggie Hudlin and his producer brother Warrington--to include big dance numbers and slapstick comedy scenes that almost play like dances, full of voluptuous, overblown physical gags. Early on, the Hudlins set the tone for what's to follow: they blow the roof off a house. A hundred minutes later, they cap that gag with their last joke.

This movie has a rhythm. It's exaggerated, loud and consciously vulgar, but the breezy self-assurance carries it along. "Party" takes place on a day and night when three young high schoolers--Kid (Christopher Reid), Play (Christopher Martin) and Bilal (Martin Lawrence)--set up a bash at Play's place, unchaperoned because his parents are on a trip down South.

What follow is simple, archetypal. Smooth Play keeps picking up women right and left, humiliating his "dragon-breathed" wallflower chum Bilal. Kid, grounded by his Pops (Harris), because of a school fight, sneaks out. At the party he is torn between two school sirens, Sharane (A. J. Johnson) and Sidney (Tisha Campbell), who are also being romanced by the insatiable Play.

Kid's nemeses, played by Full Force (the brothers Paul Anthony, Bowlegged Lou and B. Fine George) keep crossing his path with increasingly violent results. Two white cops (Barry Diamond and Michael Pniewski) cruise around, desultorily chewing doughnuts and keeping order. And every party boor imaginable--from a comatose drunk to a guy who keeps bumping into the stereo--shows up to do a number.

There's nothing very new about this, beyond the milieu. Dozens of bad teen sex comedies, mostly set in white middle-class suburbs, have similar plots. Very few have "House Party's" energy and charm. The charm comes from a number of sources: the actors, the brassy camera style, the new territory being tapped. And a lot of it comes from Hudlin's mastery of bright inside teen argot.

There's something cheerfully fluent about this dialogue: the way the buddies keep saying "That's \o7 cold.\f7 " to indicate harsh behavior, the quick little riffs and connotations. Rap is the keynote of the entire movie. Kid 'n Play are verbal prestidigitators, who can talk their way out of trouble and Reid and Martin play together with brisk chemistry, doing the classic smoothie and softie routine with brio and vigor. Where Play is the slickster, Kid, with his bizarre hairdo--an Afro shaped like a pencil eraser--is more of a natural, wide-eyed and sincere.

Kid 'n Play key the movie: the performance level is high throughout. Robin Harris, a great insult comedian who played Sweet Dick Willie--most cynical of the three corner men in "Do the Right Thing"--got swallowed up in the scenery around Eddie Murphy in "Harlem Nights." Here he gets into his raw, acrid-tongued specialty. Johnson and Campbell are properly sweet and sexy, Full Force mean, Lawrence gamy--and all the minor characters do their running gags with sly dispatch.

There's also a cheerful moralism about the film. Like Spike Lee, the Hudlins mix up some idealistic notions, in this case about safe sex and responsibility and not being \o7 cold\f7 , with a delight in offbeat mores and street slang.

"House Party" has some lapses and offenses--including a jail scene where Kid fends off potential rapists with a nervous impromptu rap about AIDS, Rock Hudson and Liberace. There's an interlude at a pool-side party with local black bourgeoisie, which doesn't work as social commentary, music criticism or comedy. And it seems strange to hear Harris' Pops wandering around muttering about curfews when he knows Kid has snuck off.

But the movie does exactly what a cheerful, unpretentious genre piece should do. It connects with its subject and audience, gives us some music, laughs, a little sentiment. "House Party" (MPAA rated R for language) is jazzy, sassy, dense with hip-hop hip and corny gags. The Hudlins take us right into their world, catch the feel of kids at loose ends, hot to trot on a balmy night. It's a hearty party.

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