‘House Party’ Review: The Bubblegum Hip-Hop ’90s Comedy Classic Gets Remade Without the Joy

The 1990 bubblegum hip-hop comedy “House Party,” starring Kid ‘n Play (a.k.a. Christopher Reid with his fez-shaped fade, Christopher Martin with his wicked putdowns), was a movie that channeled the flavor of its moment, and influenced a lot of what came afterward. It opened in March 1990 and helped to launch the spirit of the ’90s — something at once edgy and optimistic, infused with a rogue bravura that was made to conquer. Hip-hop had been on the rise for a decade, and by the late ’80s the preeminence of N.W.A. and Public Enemy had brought an ominous new profound power to hip-hop. In the summer of 1989, Spike Lee released “Do the Right Thing,” and that movie, with its fight-the-power core, was of course a Black cinematic apotheosis suffused with equal parts exuberance and trauma.

Somehow landing in the middle of all that, here was “House Party,” a naughty rollicking New Line comedy that was comparable, in many ways, to the John Hughes films or “Animal House.” Yet just as the Spike Lee revolution kicked open the door to movies like “Boyz n the Hood” and “Menace II Society,” “House Party” jump-started a fresh chapter of Hollywood that led to comedies, like “Friday,” that were funky jubilant slices of life. Kid ‘n Play, portraying rival rappers, incarnated the film’s spiky-but-suave, raunchy-but-romantic tone. “House Party,” made with affectionate brashness by the Hudlin brothers, celebrated the way that a great party could seem like it was everything. One reason the film is so fondly remembered is that its fast-break wit was an expression of pure joy.

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The new remake of “House Party” arrives at a moment that could hardly be more different, and that’s something you feel in the film’s very premise. Kevin (Jacob Latimore), a single dad who’s trying to be responsible, and Damon (Tosin Cole), a motormouth would-be party promoter who pronounces his name Da-MON (as if it were French), both work for a home-cleaning service in Los Angeles. They’re about to get fired for smoking a joint on the job, but after exploring the mansion they’re supposed to be tidying up, they realize it’s the home of LeBron James. (The trophy room, with an NBA championship ring displayed like one of the Crown Jewels, is the giveaway.) LeBron is off at a meditation retreat in India. So what if they used his crib to throw the ultimate party, advertising it on Instagram to lure in celebrities and all the people who’ll want to meet them?

As party dreams go, this one has an undeniable logic (and potential for disaster), but the thing that really strikes one about it is that its goal is as avaricious as it is coldly aspirational. Come to LeBron’s house! Mingle with the rich and famous! Pay top dollar to get in! It’s at once a party and a scam, and while the movie, directed by the music-video veteran Calmatic (it’s his first feature), is aware of all that, “House Party” doesn’t exactly strategize ways to make the chicanery funny. The film taps into the glitz ethos of the age of social-media envy without necessarily scrutinizing what it all means. Kid ‘n Play had put on a party to remember, but the new movie, much like Kevin and Damon themselves, just goes with the flow of the scam.

The two lead actors pop without winning you over the way Kid ‘n Play did. Jacob Latimore embodies the earnest Kevin a little too dutifully, and Tosin Cole is almost too diametrically his opposite number — a hyperkinetic hustler, with a new spiel every minute, though Cole’s performance, on its own slightly exhausting terms, is kind of a feat, especially when you consider that this is the actor who summoned the gravitas to play Medgar Evers in “Till.”

Vic, the DJ they hire, is played by D.C. Young Fly, and it’s this character who I think demonstrates the weird limitation of the movie — that it’s simply not very funny. Vic is a drinker who likes to guzzle from a bottle of Hennessy when he’s spinning, and D.C. Young Fly is more than game to play him as a freaked-out flake. He might be wearing a T-shirt that says “Comic Relief.” Yet the script, by Jamal Olori and Stephen Glover, doesn’t give him lines that crackle and catch fire. There’s a white geek neighbor (Andrew Santino) with a pet koala, a trio of thugs from the hood who show up to disrupt everything, and an empowered fashion plate named Venus (Karen Obilom) who steals the film’s big dance set piece (set to the old-school groove of “This Is How We Do It”). But too much of this plays rather rotely, without the verve the film keeps promising.

There are many celebrity cameos, from Mya to Snoop Dogg to Lil Wayne to Lena Waithe, but the best thing in the movie is Kid Cudi playing a delectably pretentious version of himself. He’s got the timing, and the mystique, that the rest of “House Party” lacks. The original “House Party” stayed grounded, but the new one almost seems to know that something is missing, because in the last act it goes deliberately over-the-top, as if to give us our money’s worth. Kevin and Damon end up tagging along with Kid Cudi to a meeting of the Illuminati, which results in the film turning into “Eyes Wide Shut” on bad drugs. And that’s before LeBron himself shows up. He produced the film, and proves a good sport about mocking himself, but even as this “House Party” shoots the works, it never brings off what “House Party” did back in the day of 1990. It never makes us want to be part of the party.

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