Somewhere, far too late in the plot progression of “Baby’s Day Out,” one of the befuddled villains eyes the camera and declares: “This isn’t funny anymore.” The latest offering from writer/producer John Hughes is a tired retread of past comic formulas played a pitch higher, a rhythm faster; it tries too hard to please and fails miserably. Aimed squarely at a very young audience, it should have some initial activity and disappear quickly into the summer mill of commercially disappointing programmers.
The plot is rather like a pre-pubescent spin on O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.” A trio of kidnappers (Joe Mantegna, Joe Pantoliano, Brian Haley) pose as baby photographers to gain access to the home of an old-money Chicago couple (Lara Flynn Boyle and Matthew Glave). At an opportune moment they snatch the infant son and hide out until their ransom demands are met.
The foolproof plan goes awry when 9-month-old Bennington August Cottwell IV, aka Baby Bink, crawls out an apartmentjwindow and into the hustle-bustle of downtown. For the ensuing period, the three stooges, the Cottwell household and the authorities are just a few baby steps behind the object of desire and love.
It’s a simple enough premise, but neither Hughes nor director Patrick Read Johnson provides much novelty. The action is either played out for slapstick or dripping with pathos. Either tack is geared toward obvious results.
In fact, even more than the O. Henry reference, the biggest influence on the tale derives from decades of Looney Tunes, especially those featuring the Road Runner. Baby Bink may be oblivious to malevolent intention, yet by crawling into such perilous spots as a gorilla cage and a construction site, he subjects his pursuers to physical abuse that would ordinarily fell a highly trained SWAT team.
The cartoon sensibility seems simply trite and predictable in thelive-action mode. The considerable violence provides neither shock nor humor, each incident just another location where the snatchers can be run over by a literal or figurative steam roller — and in what has become a Hughes signature, an opportunity for characters to be shot in close-up clasping hands to face and screaming into the camera.
The filmmakers’ penchant for treacly sentiment is also evident as heartwarming pictures of home and family punctuate the narrative. But real emotion doesn’t take root in the highly manipulative entertainment, and a florid score is employed assiduously to coax appropriate response.
“Baby’s Day Out” may be deserving of at least one award. It’s difficult to recall when so many accomplished performers have worked this far below their professional standards. Mantegna and Pantoliano struggle to maintain some shred of dignity, while Boyle and John Neville can’t quite decide whether to speak up or let their roles fade into the background.
There does appear to be an unwarranted sense of pride among the filmmakers, who drop a very obvious clue about the picture’s sequel potential. But opening figures should erase any doubt about possibilities for a franchise.