A joyless road-trip comedy that’s about as pleasant as a bad case of car sickness (which happens to be one of pic’s prominent gags), “Are We There Yet?” traps the affable Ice Cube in a dismal kiddy slapstick saga that even his considerable charisma can do little to enhance. Seemingly greenlit in the wake of last year’s sleeper hit “Johnson Family Vacation,” pic offers past-their-prime sight gags and (literal) toilet humor, marked by a sadistic edge that may give parents pause. Bigscreen biz should be but a rest stop before this rickety vehicle parks itself in video and cable outlets.
The owner of a Portland sports memorabilia store and a reputed ladies’ man, Nick Persons (Ice Cube) treats his pimped-out Lincoln Navigator like a newborn infant. As far as real children go, though, Nick considers them “like cockroaches, except you can’t squish ’em.”
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But that’s before Nick’s eye is caught by sexy divorcee Suzanne (Nia Long), who runs the party planning business across the street. Soon, Nick’s in hot pursuit, no matter that Suzanne is a “breeder” with two young tykes, Lindsey (Aleisha Allen) and Kevin (Philip Daniel Bolden).
The kids, meanwhile, caught up in the fantasy that their mom is still in love with their deadbeat dad, are willing to do whatever it takes to prevent Suzanne from dating any other men.
When Suzanne is called away to Vancouver to plan a major New Year’s Eve party, her ex, feigning sickness, bows out of baby-sitting duties. So Nick, despite every bone in his body (and the talking Satchel Paige bobblehead that serves as his Jiminy Cricketlike conscience) telling him not to, volunteers to take care of Suzanne’s kids.
Thus the stage is set for a series of would-be comic mishaps in which Nick attempts, by plane, train and automobile, to take Suzanne’s children to her in Vancouver in time for New Year’s. Of course, Lindsey and Kevin have other ideas — specifically, to get to their dad’s house, while making every minute as miserable as possible for chauffeur Nick.
Helmer Brian Levant previously supervised similar mischief-making on such pics as “Beethoven,” “Jingle All the Way” and “Snow Dogs.” But even the titular devil-child of his “Problem Child 2” seems oddly angelic when compared to Lindsey and Kevin, who engage in a series of dangerous and/or unsavory antics, including convincing a kindly trucker (M.C. Gainey) that Nick is a kidnapper.
That last gag (which recurs throughout pic) seems particularly ill-conceived in light of recent high-profile child abductions, but it’s of a piece with a film in which Nick, Lindsey and Kevin are frequently placed in peril.
Of course, comic violence is nothing new — the “Home Alone” franchise thrived on it — but there’s something more violent than comic about the way Levant executes sequences here.
More problematic is the fact that Lindsey and Kevin are so shrill, self-righteous and flat-out mean that it’s tough to care about them. Even the youngest members of pic’s audience may be put off by the tykes’ bad behavior. (At the screening reviewed, during one scene in which Nick calmly reassures the kids that the utter destruction of his car isn’t really their fault, one audience member felt compelled to shout out, “Yes it is!”)
When pic tries to turn sentimental in its final stretch, suggesting that Lindsey and Kevin are the victims of conflicting emotions stemming from their parents’ separation, it seems particularly unbelievable.
Shot entirely in Vancouver, pic’s tech aspects are strictly serviceable, with lots of the driving scenes clearly done on a soundstage. But considerable time and CGI attention does seem to have been lavished on the talking Paige doll, which ranks with the sea creatures of “The Life Aquatic” among recent movies’ most unnecessary special effects.