Are We There Yet?

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Are we there yet? Well, that depends. Is “there” the state of being annoyed, chafed and bored? Then yes! We are there, and our chauffeur has been Ice Cube.

“Are We There Yet?” is the sort of simple-minded, fill-in-the-blanks comedy where if a man is revealed to A) love his car and B) hate children, then we know that by the end of the film his car will be 1) destroyed 2) by children. You could plug any factors into the equation and get the same instant comedy. “I sure love my necktie but I sure hate raccoons!” says the man, only to watch aghast a few minutes later as a raccoon eats his necktie. Or: “This new bionic hip sure is sweet! I’m just glad there are no Asians around here to spoil my mood!,” followed by a Chinese man smashing the hip with a sledgehammer.

What gets me is that audiences actually respond to these painfully telegraphed gags. When Nick Persons (Ice Cube), the protagonist of “Are We There Yet?” goes on and on about how much he loves his new car, I understand that the car MUST be destroyed. Yet when it happens, the shocked audience reacts with groans of “Oooohhhhh!” Come on, folks. It’s like the movie said “two plus two” and then you’re amazed when “four” happens. Try to act like you’re not a bunch of rubes, OK?

Nick lives in Portland, where he runs a sports-collectibles store with his bland white friend Marty (Jay Mohr). Nick admires the woman who works across the street, a gorgeous event-planner named Suzanne (Nia Long), but is turned off to discover, as he observes her, that she has children. He doesn’t like children. (He does like his car, though. I sure hope his car and her children don’t meet, or else we are on a collision course with wackiness!)

Her children are Lindsey (Aleisha Allen) and Kevin (Philip Bolden), both around 10 years old, and as it happens, they don’t like male suitors, either. They are clinging to the sad, pitiful hope that their parents will reconcile and their father will come home, to the point that they sabotage every relationship Mom has. They are willing to hurt the men, if necessary, as seen in a painful prologue featuring “NYPD Blue’s” Henry Simmons. These are two kids who need some serious discipline, but I’ll leave that for the family courts to decide.

Anyway, Nick and Suzanne become friends — no romance, because they both realize his dislike of children will get in the way — and is thus called upon to help out when the kids’ father can’t take them over New Year’s Eve as planned. Suzanne must fly to Vancouver for an event she’s coordinated; could Nick possibly fly up with the children and meet her there?

Now, this is a dilemma for a screenwriter. We don’t want Nick flying to Vancouver with the kids; it’s too easy. The movie would be over before it started. No, we need Nick to DRIVE the children to Vancouver, in his car that he loves so much. But how do we get them off the plane and into the car?

If I were writing this movie, I would first become despondent and wonder what had gone wrong in my life to lead me to this point. But then, when I got back to the task at hand, I would probably have the flight get canceled due to bad weather, or have there be no available seats (which is plausible, since the tickets are being purchased last-minute). Then maybe they miss the last Amtrak headed north, too. Problem solved!

But what these screenwriters (Steven Gary Banks and Claudia Grazioso, with additional help from “Shrek 2’s” J. David Stem and David N. Weiss) come up with is for the malicious young Kevin to put a corkscrew in Nick’s jacket pocket, thus setting off the metal detectors and getting all three of them ejected from the airport. Never mind that a person carrying a corkscrew through the security checkpoint would merely have the corkscrew taken away, not be removed from his flight altogether. The sight of three security guards tackling Nick is funny (?), so we will include that in our film EVEN IF IT MAKES NO SENSE.

They miss their train, too, for a stupid reason that I don’t feel like talking about, and so then it’s a road trip to Vancouver. In the tradition of all road-trip movies, there is a run-in with an animal (a deer, specifically), numerous incidents of damage to Nick’s car, a puking, and arguments over what should be played on the stereo. All the while, the children torment Nick, having realized he’s attracted to their mother and is thus a threat. It’s like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” but with Steve Martin replaced by Ice Cube and John Candy replaced by two spiteful, hateful children who are unworthy of love.

Director Brian Levant, of such stellar works as “Jingle All the Way,” “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas” and “Snow Dogs,” continues to demonstrate in “Are We There Yet?” that he has no idea how to tell a story. This one is off the charts, with tangents that include stopping at a wild New Year’s Eve party for children, searching for asthma medicine for Kevin, knocking over a Paul Bunyan statue at a truck stop, and careening down the side of a mountain. At one point, I kid you not, Nick is on horseback pursuing a train. It’s a movie where the events keep getting bigger and bigger, but never funnier.

Because this is a comedy aimed at families, there are multiple instances of people being hit on the head with things and being hit in the groin with things. There is also an old lady who farts, played by Nichelle Nichols. Old ladies who fart are commonplace in family comedies — why, I can’t remember the last family comedy I saw that didn’t have one — but they are not usually played by Lt. Uhura. So we are clearly breaking new ground here. She was half of TV’s first-ever interracial kiss, and now she’s breaking wind in a mirthless January comedy.

Oh! I almost forgot. Nick has a bobblehead doll on his dashboard in the likeness of legendary baseball player Satchel Paige, and the doll speaks to Nick in the voice of Tracy Morgan. I thought for sure I had dreamed this part of the movie — first broad, obvious slapstick, now talking tchotchkes? That can’t be right — but I checked with a fellow film critic who was at the screening and he confirmed it happened. Whew. I thought I was losing my mind for a minute there.

D (1 hr., 36 min.; PG, a handful of damns.)

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