‘House Party’ Review: A Rager Gone South

The dilemma of the modern-day movie reboot, particularly in Hollywood’s current I.P. gold-rush era, might be called the “super size me” problem. If you’re going to redo it, why not go bigger, make it more star-studded, and add a little meta wink? After all, what is actually being reconfigured is, for better or worse, not necessarily the soul or story of the original, but the cultural commodity it has become.

There are plenty of arguments to be had about which films succeed or fail within this equation. But falling prey to remake bloat is particularly curious and perhaps tragic for a film like “House Party,” the uneven, halfway-fun remake of the 1990 comedy of the same name.

Unlike many rebooted films, the original “House Party” has always felt delightfully small. With a simple premise — teenagers trying to throw a big bash while their parents are away — it was an effortlessly fun comedy with genuine heart (save for the dated and homophobic bits toward the end), anchored by the easy charm of its rap duo stars, Kid ’n Play. While it spawned a trilogy, it was never a box-office juggernaut, and is now enjoyed as a cult classic whose success helped ignite a Black independent film renaissance.

To say, though, that this new “House Party” has failed in recapturing this essence would not be entirely fair. In some ways, the film, helmed by the music video director Calmatic, is two movies, its first half mostly understanding where the charisma lies in a comedy like this. Set in Los Angeles, the film opens with a montage of the city that is such a thoroughly nostalgic throwback to the world of ’90s Black comedies that it feels ripped straight from “Friday.”

Kevin (Jacob Latimore), struggling to pay his toddler daughter’s school tuition, finds himself without options when he and his best friend, Damon (Tosin Cole), lose their jobs as house cleaners. Finishing up their last gig, they realize they’re cleaning the house of LeBron James himself, and cook up a plan to cash in with a huge party there.

Much of this buildup is a good-enough romp. There are throwbacks to the 1990 film: a dance battle featuring Tinashe that automatically falls short compared with the iconic original scene; a villain trio that is arguably more entertaining than the Full Force bullies in the first two films; and, of course, a cameo from Kid ’n Play themselves. Yet it is baffling why the film doesn’t use the original stars more creatively; instead, they occupy one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slot in the endless parade of empty cameos and absurdist camp comedy that makes up the movie’s second half.

You might also call this the LeBron problem: After the dreaded “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” this is the second ’90s reboot that the superstar, moving into entertainment during his Los Angeles tenure, has produced, starred in and treated as a gilded fun house where celebrities and characters are all just commercial properties popping in for a cheap thrill. Like any rager gone south, the buzz is fun early on, until it’s suddenly too much, the house is overrun, and the room starts spinning.

House Party
Rated R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual material and some violence. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters.

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