December 7, 2006

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Unaccompanied Minors (PG)
The children of divorce (plus some Jewish kids visiting their grandparents) are trapped in a Chicago airport on Christmas Eve in Unaccompanied Minors, a movie directed by Paul Feig.

And if that' not enough reason for warm milk-and-cookies feelings toward this movie (Feig was a director on Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared and Arrested Development) consider also that Ira Glass gets an executive director credit and the idea for this story originated from an essay on his radio show This American Life. One tries to be objective when watching a movie for review purposes, but Ira Glass, Paul Feig — I'm not made of stone.

I mention this because I feel I should own up to the fact that slack has been cut for this sprinkle-covered store-bought sugar cookie. The movie is a John Hughes knockoff that trades on the fact that we identify Lewis Black, Rob Corddry and Tyler James Williams (the Chris in Everybody Hates Chris) with funny shows even though they aren't always funny here. Like a kid sliding into a classroom at the last possible second to turn in the term paper he just two minutes earlier finished writing, Unaccompanied Minors squeaks by on the goodwill of its enormously talented, completely slumming-it team.

Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) and his sister Katherine (Dominique Saldana) are dropped off by their mother (Paget Brewster) at a West Coast airport on Christmas Eve so they can spend the holiday with their dad (Corddry) back east. Halfway there, a snowstorm strands them in Chicago along with a warehouse full of other UMs (unaccompanied minors). Horrified by the zoo-like conditions of the holding room where the siblings are taken, Spencer slips out the door, along with a bunch of other like-minded, like-aged kids. There' Charlie (Williams), a straightlaced nerdy child who heads straight to the Sharper Image. There' the strange Beef (Brett Kelly, strange fat kid of Bad Santa fame), who heads to the equipment room and plays in a blowup raft with his Aquaman action figure. There' Grace (Gina Mantegna), a princessy rich girl who heads to the first-class lounge for some spa treatments. There' Donna (Quinn Shephard), the, for lack of a better description, Ally Sheedy girl (she even has Ally-Sheedy-circa-The Breakfast Club hair) who steals a cart and drives around the airport. Eventually they all get busted and, though the rest of the children have been taken to a hotel, these five troublemakers are sent to the library for Saturday morning detenti€¦I mean, sent back to the garbage-strewn holding room where airport employee Zach (Wilmer Valderrama) is forced to watch them.

Forced by whom? By Oliver (Lewis Black), the children- and Christmas-hating, Hawaiian-vacation-missing, bah-humbugging head of the airport. He is wallowing in thick black misery for being denied by the blizzard his chance to leave the airport behind and filled with bitterness at being responsible for the army of stranded passengers, the most troublesome of whom are the unaccompanied minors. He decides to punish the UM club for this and they, being the plucky movie tweens that they are, decide to break out and make his night all the more difficult. Their stated goal is to bring a gift, a tree, just generally Christmas to young Katherine but their real aim is to cause 90 minutes of laughtastic mayhem concluded by a grand gesture of holiday cheer and good will.

That' right — there is a true meaning of Christmas and it is learned by people. There are fart jokes and oodles of airport-security-chasing-improbably-fast-moving-child scenes and a requisite pairing off by the non-Beef-tweens into airport couples. It is The Breakfast Club wrapped in Goonies and tied with a Home Alone bow. Far too many of the jokes come from the Mad Libs Sitcom Scripts workbook and the adult buffoonery puts Ice Cube movies to shame.

And yet...

I don't claim this movie is good but if your kids aren't old enough to watch Bad Santa yet (and if they can't purchase the unrated DVD with money they made from a full-time job that also pays for the house they live in independent of you then they aren't old enough to watch Bad Santa), this is perhaps as close to funny as a holiday comedy that isn't A Christmas Story gets. Williams is a good little comic actor and the rest of the children stick close enough to their character types that their shakiness with the mechanics of acting isn't too distracting. Black and Corddry are funnier in their most mediocre appearance on The Daily Show than they are here (ditto Jessica Walter and Tony Hale on Arrested Development). But, along with Teri Garr and three of the five Kids in the Hall (Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCullough and Mark McKinney), these comic actors do get to add the occasional touches of funny here. And, while Feig himself didn't write any of the movie, there are touches of a Feig-like sensibility with the constant embarrassment in your family, your self and the world when you're middle-school-aged and how some of that never really leaves you.

You, the adult, will not be completely miserable sitting through this movie, even if you do look at your watch. Perhaps more importantly, the kids in the theater where I saw this movie laughed and did so throughout. And, heck, isn't a certain amount of finding the lowest common denominator with the rest of the family what the holidays are all about? C+

Rated PG for mild rude humor (farts, burps, etc.) and language. Directed by Paul Feig and written by Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark, Unaccompanied Minors is about an hour and a half long and is distributed by Warner Bros. It opens wide on Dec. 8

— Amy Diaz