“Twenty-four hours. Three hundred and fifty miles. His girlfriend’s kids. What could possibly go wrong?” In the case of Are We There Yet?, here’s the short answer: a flaccid screenplay, bratty kids stripped of depth and personality, a single joke replayed in every scene, unearned attempts at sentiment, and a bizarrely whitened backdrop, presumably designed to broaden the film’s appeal, resulting in a version of reality that corresponds to nothing other than itself. “A black man from Oregon?” Ice Cube asks at one point. No kidding.
The premise, on which every joke in the film relies, goes as follows: Nick Persons (Cube) is a bachelor living the high life in Portland, presumably enjoying the profits from his twee sports memorabilia store. (Nestled in a gentrified downtown, it’s the kind of place that, one imagines, Ice Cube wouldn’t be caught dead in.) The movie opens with Nick’s purchase of a fully appointed Lincoln Navigator, a black behemoth that his hood-talkin’ white friend (Jay Mohr) refers to as “six thousand pounds of respect.”
On the same day Nick drives the Navigator off the lot, he catches a windswept glimpse of Suzanne (Nia Long) — or at least, of her breasts — a fetching party planner who works across the street. But Cube’s friend warns him off, as she is a member of that most unpalatable of species, the divorcée. With kids! Talk about a buzz-kill. Cube, further advised by the animated Satchel Paige bobblehead mounted on his dashboard (yes), decides to steer clear.
But not for long. Later that day, stranded in a rainstorm with a dead battery, Suzanne plays the damsel in distress — and no man, not even Cube, can resist a C-cup with car trouble. He is hooked like Velcro, and his labors begin. First, it’s simply a matter of ferrying Suzanne to and from work; then, at the last minute before she flies to Vancouver on business, her ex-husband bows out of childcare. Nick could allow Suzanne to cancel her trip and lose her job, especially since, by this point, she has rebuffed his romantic advances. (“I’m a single mother.” “No, you’re a sexy momma!”) But he’s a good guy (and hard-up), so he agrees to get the kids to the Great White North.
The next 75 minutes of Are We There Yet? are painfully, mind-numbingly subsumed with this attempt, which goes awry at every turn. The kids, Lindsey (Aleisha Allen) and Kevin (Philip Daniel Bolden), are hell-bent on sabotage, since they hope for a reunion between their parents. But even if they weren’t obnoxious, Cube wouldn’t care for them: His interests lie in protecting his own baby — the Navigator — and in earning brownie points from the lady with the rack. Still, coexist they must.
It will come as no surprise that Cube wins the hearts of the kids and, through them (and if only at the eleventh hour), that of their uninteresting mother. In the meantime, he wrecks the Navigator, but learning to corral Suzanne’s sass-monsters has taught him that his beloved ride is “just a material possession.” (Of course, that’s only after the lion’s share of the film has advertised the Navigator’s excellence — as opposed to pointing out the likely connection between its toxic emissions and Kevin’s asthma.) Thereafter, we’re expected to swallow platitudes about daddies who leave their kids and, simultaneously, to enjoy the new-found affection between Nick and Suzanne’s children, even as it’s predicated upon their paternal abandonment.
It’s all a big, boring failure of slapstick and degradation, in which we must witness the taking down not merely of Cube but of Satchel Paige and the environment. Of course, that’s not to say your kids won’t like it. The audience at a preview screening laughed, though not as often as the film certainly intends. Kids who triumph over adults are the stock-in-trade of family comedy, and that kind of topsy-turvy universe offers real fun for children — especially since kids aren’t likely to notice that the dialogue is nothing more than rehashed sitcom fare, or that the young actors stiffen under the weight of the leaden prose. (They improve as the film progresses — er, goes on.) In any case, it’s probably mostly wagging tongues, car chases, and vomit-and-pee jokes to the ten-and-under set. In other words: another afternoon at the multiplex.
It’s too bad. Intelligent family film is far from an oxymoron (School of Rock, for instance), though you wouldn’t know it to look at most of what issues from Hollywood. And what, exactly, is Ice Cube doing in selling his soul to whitey? “Lord, these kids are ethnically challenged,” he complains when they request Clay Aiken. Here’s a guess: They got that way by watching movies like this one.