Damn that Satchel Paige bobblehead doll that Nick Persons (Ice Cube) keeps on the dashboard of his car, and double-damn director Brian Levant (2002's "Snow Dogs
") for thinking it was a good idea to computer-generate the exaggerated likeness of the baseball player and have it frequently converse with Nick throughout. True, the animated doll is not really meant to be alive so much as a poser of Nick's conscience speaking, but this gimmick is so hamstrung, so rabidly unfunny, and so useless that "Are We There Yet?" becomes intolerable before the story proper has had a chance to get underway. Actually, the extended use of the bobblehead is a fairly accurate symbol of how "Are We There Yet?" goes wrong; indeed, every time the viewer begins to let down their guard and start to enjoy this goofy, well-meaning family comedy, the film is bound to ruin it in a minute or two with some misguided idea gone even more awry or some script contrivance that knocks the characters' IQ ratings down to single digits.
Nick Persons is a carefree bachelor specializing in sports collectibles who is suddenly swept off his feet at the very sight of beautiful Suzanne Kingston (Nia Long)until he realizes she is a single mother raising two children, Lindsey (Aleisha Allen) and Kevin (Philip Daniel Bolden). Nick despises children, believing them to be obnoxious burdens that tie adults down, and the strong-willed, smart-alecky likes of Lindsey and Kevin, who do not believe any man other than their somewhat estranged father is suitable for Suzanne, comfortably fit the stereotype. When the children's dad cancels at the last minute to take them for the weekend and Suzanne risks getting fired if she does not travel up to British Columbia for business, Nick steps in to offer his services. In a bid to win over Suzanne, Nick agrees to transport Lindsey and Kevin 300 miles, from Oregon to Canada, to where she is for New Year's Eve. Their road trip, however, takes an almost instant turn toward disaster-prone, and then just gets worse and worse.
The plot trajectory of "Are We There Yet?" will be a foregone conclusion to just about anyone in the audience, as their trip together befalls one mishap after the next. And, of course, Nick's sour relationship with young Lindsey and Kevin gradually turns to respect, and then love. For a while, and following a mean-spirited and lowest-common-denominator first act, the film surprisingly works. Once Nick and the kids hit the open roadthey are denied airplane travel when the tight, paranoid, post-9/11 security finds a corkscrew in Nick's coat pocketdirector Brian Levant keeps the pace moving at an amicable clip as the pitfalls mount. Especially funny is a scene in which Nick boards a train, only to discover once it has started moving that Lindsey and Kevin are still on the outside platform, and another moment in which Lindsey writes a "Help Me!" sign, flashing it frightfully out the window in an attempt to fool a trucker into believing they have been kidnapped. The latter scene, like so much of the movie, doesn't know when to quit, quickly losing some of its comic potential by having the truck thoughtlessly bash Nick's automobile into the railing in an attempt to get him to stop driving. Also cute is a music debate between hip-hop-loving Nick and the pop-adoring youngsters that ends with Nick coming around on the toe-tapping virtues of "The Hamster Song."
The fun eventually comes to a jarring halt as the final act slides into play and frustration takes over. Beginning with an unlikely deer attack, following through with a very idiotic decision on Nick's part involving a lighter, and lasting all the way until the final scene, "Are We There Yet?" hits the skids and doesn't recover. The hectic, ill-advised climax, in all of its myriad plot turns, is the type that could so easily be solved and put to rest if the characters were only smart enough to speak up and clarify all of the misunderstandings. They ultimately do not, for the sole reason of adding last-minute conflict to a finale where less would have been infinitely more. Especially angering is the sudden turn in Suzanne's attitude from understanding and even-keeled to purely irrational in her judgments, cheapening a character played with more conviction than the slim role deserves by Nia Long (2004's "Alfie
"). When a motion picture has four credited screenwriters, there is no excuse for this level of neglectful stupidity.
The other performances are a mixed bag. Ice Cube (2004's "Barbershop 2: Back in Business
") is agreeable as the child-hating-turned-redemptive Nick, a far cry from his days in the irredeemable, raunchy "Friday
" series. As the initially unpleasant Lindsey and Kevin, Aleisha Allen (2003's "The School of Rock
") and Philip Daniel Bolden (2004's "Johnson Family Vacation
") grow on you. Allen and Bolden still have some work to do to sharpen their dramatic skills, but they are comedic naturals who, in opening up and learning to trust Nick, become likable presences for the audience. In what can only be looked upon as shuddering embarrassment, Jay Mohr (2002's "Simone
") shows up in the wretched, transparent supporting part of Marty, Nick's coworker at the collectible shop.
"Are We There Yet?," which targets a young demographichow else to explain the sophomoric slapstick and abominably inappropriate talking Satchel Paige bobblehead (voiced by Tracy Morgan)tests the limits of the PG rating and gets away with quite a lot. From jokes involving kidnapping, abuse, and the present-day security issues at airports to gross-out humor involving projectile vomiting and urinating on a woman's open-mouthed face, "Are We There Yet?" is almost a younger-aimed version of 2000's explicit, raucous, R-rated "Road Trip
." Some parents will be alarmed. More liberal ones likely won't mind. It doesn't matter either way. This family feature is only the latest in a long line of them that don't trust their audience, and don't treat them fairly. How interesting it would have been had the film itself, as well as the characters, been written with equal parts humor, knowledge, and honesty. In place of these things are illogical mistrust and infantile story points. "Are We There Yet?" could just as easily have been the studio's final question toward director Brian Levant and his writers when the movie was being prepped to go into production. After taking another look at the sickly script in front of them, their answer should have been a resounding no.