Yet another remake of a classic TV sitcom, “The Honeymooners” is just funny enough to mollify purists and amuse the uninitiated. To be sure, pic likely will play best with auds too young to know much about the source material venerated by many older ticketbuyers. But even fans who have memorized whole swaths of dialogue from the ’50s series starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney might enjoy bits and pieces of this updated version top-lining Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Epps. Expect mid-range B.O. numbers during its summer theatrical run, followed by sunnier homevid sales and rentals.
Scripters Danny Jacobson, David Sheffield, Barry W. Blaustein and Don Rhymer have changed lead characters from white to African-American. Except for that not-insignificant alteration, however, feature remains surprisingly faithful in spirit to the original 39 black-and-white episodes — arguably the most exhaustively rerun programs in TV history — produced in 1955-56.
(For the record: Gleason introduced “Honeymooners” as a recurring sketch in his early ’50s variety show, and later revived the characters — in living color — for mini-musicals presented during the run of “The Jackie Gleason Show” in 1960s. Unofficially, of course, the show also inspired “The Flintstones.”)
The low-concept premise, now as then, pivots on New York bus driver Ralph Kramden (Cedric), a would-be wheeler-dealer who dreams and schemes to provide better lives for himself and his long-suffering wife Alice (Gabrielle Union). His get-rich-quick plans usually involve city sewer worker Ed Norton (Epps), his none-too-bright buddy and upstairs neighbor, much to the dismay of Trixie (Regina Hall), Ed’s tart-tongued spouse.
Trouble is, Ralph’s ambitions far outstrip his abilities, and his repeated failures sorely test Alice’s love and patience.
In sharp contrast to the stark, almost Edward Hopperish set where most of the action took place in the ’50s sitcom, the apartment conceived for the big-screen Kramdens by production designer Charles Wood seems a more spacious and much cheerier abode.
Still, Alice dreams of living in her own home. And she views a newly available fixer-upper duplex (which she hopes to share with the Nortons) as her dream come true. Trouble is, a supercilious real estate developer (Eric Stoltz) already has his acquisitive eye on the property.
Making a down payment becomes even more of a challenge for Alice after Ralph depletes their bank account to finance another moneymaking scheme. He impulsively buys an antiquated railroad car that Norton discovered in a deserted underground station, hoping to use the vehicle for a sightseeing business.
When that grand plan hits a roadblock, Ralph and Ed next try to transform an abandoned greyhound dog into a champion racer. With a little help from the aptly named Dodge (John Leguizamo), a grungy con artist and self-described “trainer,” the two friends almost succeed in reaching the winner’s circle. Almost.
Totally at ease in the role of Ralph, Cedric wisely shies away from undue mimicry of Gleason’s familiar antics as the sometimes blustery, sometimes abashed bus driver. (This Ralph may promise Alice the moon, but he never threatens to send her there.) And while he certainly doesn’t banish all memory of his illustrious predecessor, he’s amusing and engaging enough to stake his own claim to this particular incarnation of the character.
Likewise, Epps comes across as slightly brainier than Carney ever did as Ed Norton. In a couple of scenes, however, he gets laughs by recalling the fastidious body language Carney brilliantly brought to moments of physical comedy. And while Hall gets overshadowed every bit as often as Trixie did on the old TV show, Union more than holds her own opposite Cedric with an attractive mix of sexy sweetness and steely determination.
Perhaps the most striking thing about “The Honeymooners” is the overall discipline evidenced by director John Schultz (“Like Mike”) and his players. Gross-out humor is conspicuous by its absence; sight gags are bound by the laws of physics and gravity.
Nothing — not even Stoltz’s serious villainy or Leguizamo’s improvised wackiness — is allowed to disrupt the storyline. (Jon Polito plays it mostly straight as a dog track official who briefly impedes the protagonists.) This restraint may keep pic from reaching dizzying heights of free-wheeling lunacy, but it also prevents descent into overbearing excess or unbearable silliness. As a result, the lightweight comedy earns far more chuckles than guffaws, but no pained groans at all.
Echoing the tone of the original TV show, pic is too soft-hearted to indulge in easy-laugh cruelty, and too affectionate toward its characters to play the humiliation card too often. Ending is upbeat — but, once again remaining true to source material, not too upbeat.
Production values are first-rate across the board. Much of pic was shot in Ireland — at Ardmore Studios and Shelbourne Park Greyhound Track — but filmed-in-Manhattan exteriors provide sufficient New York flavor.