‘House Party’ Review: Comedy Reboot Offers Mostly Mediocrity With One Flash of Brilliance

Returning to the well of the 1990s hit franchise, the film features one sequence that provides a glimpse into the mad whirl it might have been

House Party
Ron Batzdorff/WB

Reginald Hudlin’s original “House Party” is, if you haven’t rewatched it recently, an absolute firework of a motion picture. Lively, rich with character, and mostly very funny, the cult hit comedy of 1990 still feels fresh and exciting to this very day, right up until a shameful climactic volcano of rampant homophobia that makes the film frustratingly hard to recommend.

But a hit is a hit, and Hollywood did what Hollywood does best, churning out one follow-up after another until they ran that “House Party” right into the ground. One pretty good sequel and three completely forgettable ones later — unless the direct-to-video installments, “Down to the Minute” and “Tonight’s the Night,” have a passionate fanbase I’m unaware of — the time is just about right to revitalize the franchise with as straightforward a premise as it gets.

It’s time to throw a house party, again, and find out what wacky shenanigans will wackily shenan. Again.

The new “House Party” stars Jacob Latimore (“The Chi”) and Tosin Cole (“Till”) as Kevin and Damon, two young ne’er-do-wells who rarely, if ever, do well. Kevin is trying to get his life together to provide for his young daughter, while Damon cares only for their struggling party-planning business, which isn’t so much of a business since they’re not making any money off of it.

Together, they work a day job cleaning houses for the rich and famous, but when they get a warning from Kevin’s girlfriend Venus (Karen Obilom, “Doom Patrol”) that they’re about to get fired — and with good cause, they’re terrible at this — they hatch a plan to throw a monster house party at the fancy mansion they’re currently cleaning. A fancy mansion which just happens to be owned by LeBron James. Yes, the LeBron James. The guy who coincidentally produced this movie, and who all the characters say is the greatest human being who lived.

Typical “House Party”–type antics ensue, as Kevin and Damon struggle to keep their eccentric DJ, Vic (DC Young Fly), off the sauce long enough to do a proper set while they find romance with their respective potential love interests. The difference is that this particular house party is, once again, at LeBron James’ house, and that means they have to keep the place neat and tidy, or at least only lightly broken, so he never has to find out about it. And since Damon finds LeBron’s contact list, he’s also able to invite huge celebrities, like Kid Cudi (playing himself), to hobnob and to bring their own distinct brands of assistance and/or trouble.

As comedy premises go, holding a secret party at a famous person’s house is a pretty good one, and when “House Party” focuses on the hijinks, it comes closest to meriting attendance. A late-in-the-game plot point that requires Kevin, Damon and Kid Cudi to leave the party and go on a side quest is, briefly yet blissfully, a hilarious bit of filmmaking. These ten minutes of pure absurdist inspiration are by far the best part of the film, and a hint that first-time feature filmmaker Calmatic, an award-winning music video and commercial director, is perhaps the real deal.

But most of this new “House Party” is relatively uninspired, a modest and mediocre comedy that relies more on its high-concept plot to capture the audience’s attention than on interesting characters or, you know, jokes. A frustratingly large number of the gags in this film fail to land, even with a thud. They just float away, free of substance and devoid of impact. Outside of that one noteworthy, exceptional sequence, the film offers up the concept of comedy more than any actual, tangible humor.

It’s not that “House Party” is hard to watch; it just isn’t very fun to watch, either. And despite a new premise with untold potential for class commentary, or even warfare, Calmatic’s film takes it incredibly easy on the 1%. The rich and powerful are, for the most part, in this universe, genuinely better than everyone else, with good hearts and even a handful of superpowers. Even the rich people who are actually up to weird, unwholesome things are little more than amusing cartoons. Perhaps letting LeBron James produce the film, setting it at his house, and giving him a cameo wasn’t exactly a formula conducive to criticizing LeBron James or his close network of friends.

As a result, this new “House Party” can’t help but seem a little toothless, Latimore, Cole and Obilim are working overtime, giving the script more than it gives them in return, and Calmatic films it all just fine. If only the movie had been as sublimely odd and inspired as its comic centerpiece, then maybe it could have ranked among the upper echelon of “House Party” movies. Instead, the results feel more “partly” than “party.”

“House Party” opens in US theaters Jan. 13 via New Line/Warner Bros.