Paul Feig has directed a number of episodes of critically-acclaimed television shows like "The Office" and "Arrested Development," and was a writer on the much-loved, long-defunct "Freaks and Geeks." The acerbic wit and stark honesty with which those series' were told is in limited supply in "Unaccompanied Minors," an overly silly candy cane of a movie that tests the boundaries of believability. Feig isn't sure if he wants to make a tween version of "The Breakfast Club" or a dumb, toddler-pandering slapstick, and it is this confused wavering between tones that leads to neither halfthe soul-searching moments involving children of divorced or neglectful parents and the ill-advised physical comedy routinesfinding its groove.
When a blizzard hits Chicago-based Hoover International Airport on Christmas Eve, all flights are canceled for the rest of the day and night. This proves to be quite a quandary for airport attendant Zach (Wilmer Valderrama), in charge of keeping an eye on the amok-running unaccompanied minors, most of them stuck between the homes of their divorced parents. When five of the kids, all around twelve or thirteensensitive Spencer (Dyllan Spencer), rich princess Grace (Gina Mantegna), perfectionist Charlie (Tyler James Williams), sardonic Donna (Quinn Shephard) and chubby outsider Timothy (Brett Kelly)break free from their peers and set themselves loose on the airport, they must elude the clutches of Scrooge-like Hoover manager Oliver (Lewis Black), extra-angry over his delayed flight to Hawaii. As the kids make the most of a bad situation and become friends, their attempts of not getting caught turn to efforts of reaching Spencer's little sister Katherine (Dominique Saldana), who is holed up with the other unaccompanied minors in a nearby lodge and expecting a visit from Santa at 4:29 a.m.
The good news is "Unaccompanied Minors" is the fourth Christmas movie in just over a month and the best of the quartet. The bad news: with the previous three being duds like "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
," "Deck the Halls
" and "The Nativity Story
," claiming superiority doesn't exactly take rocket science. There are a few witty moments, most of them involving Spencer and Katherine's daffy holiday-obsessed aunt (Teri Garr) and Katherine's horrific experiences at the lodge dealing with a control-freak roommate named Mary Lynn (Michelle Sandler). Both of these bright throwaway subplots are more entertaining that the central storyline of the five kids and their mischievous adventures at the airport. As Spencer and his makeshift posse steal a go-cart, have a run-in with a luggage coveyor belt, and climb through the air ducts, the hundreds of other stranded fliers conveniently disappear from the premisesthat is, until they are needed for the finale and all obediently wake up from slumber at exactly the same time in exactly the same waiting area.
Director Paul Feig and screenwriters Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark flounder a plot that could have been so much more than it is. The sporadic dramatic interludes that reveal some secrets about certain characters and vaguely discuss the effects of having to split time between divorced parents come dangerously close to being heavy-handed. Still, these scenes are a step up from the hokey montage sequences that serve little purpose and the pratfalls, put-downs and overall chaos that are the source of most of the attempted comedy. Oh, and as if the world needed another one, there is a flatulence joke to satisfy fart enthusiasts.
When the filmmakers narrow in on the characters' burgeoning friendships, there are some small pleasures within the unaffected, likable, somewhat unsophisticated performances of the young actors and their chemistry with each other. Overall, though, director Feig doesn't trust himself to produce a smart coming-of-age film, a savvy family comedy or an enduring Christmas movie. In turn, they cheapen the proceedings with caricaturizations over presenting actual human behavior and juvenile jokes and stunts that will alienate everyone but the five-year-olds in the audience. Thus, there are unctuous scenes like the sled-riding fiasco, as well as hypocritical character actionstyrannical airport boss Oliver is as nasty as can be until a sudden turnabout that the script requires, and there is never an explanation for why the Jewish Charlie passes out every time he comes in contact with a person dressed as Santa Claus. The ending includes a bevy of strained developments. The airport travelers are trapped in the terminal on Christmas Day, and yet they aren't the least bit disgruntled when they are awoke by a child ringing a bell who herds them over to interact with Santa. Meanwhile, the outcome of neglected child Grace at the end is absolutely ridiculous, suggesting what has to be considered kidnapping in all fifty states.
"Unaccompanied Minors," despite featuring plentiful shots of snow falling and seasonal songs, doesn't encapsulate the feeling that a quality Christmas movie should. There is a little good cheer near the end, but it feels pre-packaged rather than authentic, much like the film as a whole. Relationships and suggestive romances occur because they are required by the script, not because they come from a natural progression within the world of these characters. Had a more realistic hand been brought to "Unaccompanied Minors," it undoubtedly would have been the winning missing ingredient to boost things above merely bearable. As is, the film is too mugging and childish for adults, and not nearly smart or original enough to deserve the time of its target pre-teen audience. Much like a plane suddenly missing its driver, "Unaccompanied Minors" sputters to the end credits on autopilot.