ZERO STARS/**** Image D+ Sound B- Extras D+
starring Lewis Black, Wilmer Valderrama, Tyler James Williams, Dyllan Christopher
screenplay by Jacob Meszaros & Mya Stark
directed by Paul Feig
by Walter Chaw The bare bones of it--misfit kids stranded, The Breakfast Club-like, in a relationship pressure-cooker--seems tailor-made for "Freaks and Geeks" co-creator Paul Feig, but the fact that it plays out in a series of deadening, eternally-unspooling pratfalls and Catskills set-ups and payoffs proves that it's possible for good artists to produce bad art. Feig getting work at all (ditto erstwhile partner-in-crime Judd Apatow, who's sadly already used up a good bit of good will) in Hollywood suggests that the same blindness that finds consistent employment for Michael Bay and Brett Ratner will sometimes smile on good, smart people like Feig. That being said, Unaccompanied Minors is appalling. If it's not offensive in any substantive sense, it's bad by almost every measure of quality. People defending things like this children-running-amuck slapstick piece--which demonstrates precious little in the way of focus or restraint (think Baby's Day Out or any Home Alone sequel, but without the depth)--because their children like it would have their kids taken away from them were they to apply this rationale to food, toys, friends, schools, car seats, and so on. The reason we don't let youngsters vote and sign contracts is that their judgment is for shit, and if we want to keep them from setting themselves on fire we ought to be protecting them from this stuff, too, not indulging their affinity for it.
Lead minor is Spencer (Dyllan Christopher); the girl he's in love with is Grace (Gina Mantegna, daughter of Joe); the black comic relief who dances and sings is Charlie (Tyler James Williams); the proto-lesbian is Donna (Quinn Shephard); and the disgusting fat weirdo is Beef (Brett Kelly). Beef is not to be confused with the similarly vile Chunk from The Goonies or Ham from The Sandlot. Since over-familiarity with the premise and characters is only a small part of the problem, lay the rest of the troubles on the doorstep of gags like a security guard failing to grab a kid, looking at his hands in double-take surprise, and then doing a cartoon catch-up to the accompaniment of calliope music. Most heartbreaking is the presumptuousness of it: the agreement that Spencer is a geek because he apparently works in the A/V room, or that Grace is a shallow bitch-goddess afraid that her secret (she wears glasses!) will be leaked into the smirkosphere. Why, and at what point, did Feig choose to ally himself with the bullies of the world and substitute broad stereotype for insight into character? It always bugs me when shortcuts like these are taken--but it bugs me more when someone like Feig takes them, because doesn't it, in essence, undermine much of what he's stood for up to this point?
Our hero minors take on the evil dean/principal/airport security manager Porter (Lewis Black) when they're stuck at an airport during a blizzard and forced into the gently impotent care of Zach (Wilmer Valderrama). Of course they bristle against the entirely reasonable restrictions placed upon them; of course there's a parallel drama with the hysterical mother (Paget Brewster); and of course there's a metric ton of sub-Abbott & Costello slapstick, forced sentiment, and vaudevillian banter. It's antiquated, creaky, and presented sans timing or anything that could be mistaken for wit. Too easy to say the project is a cash-grab aimed at our youngest demographic (though cash certainly has to have something to do with it)--the real puzzler is how you could manage to reunite three founding members of "The Kids in the Hall" and all you can think to do with them is put them in the background of a couple of shots. Unaccompanied Minors is a failure of imagination. Obnoxious and chaotic, demonstrating no unity of vision and no excuse for its own existence, it's neither artistic statement nor triumphant popular entertainment: not personal and not public, either. What it is is a vacuum, sucking up a lot of smart, talented people and leaving no trace of them in its celluloid wake. While I've seen worse films, I haven't seen many this dispiriting.
Warner brings Unaccompanied Minors home on a flipper that renders the Super35 film in 1.33:1 fullscreen on one side and 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on the other. Both are disappointments, seeing as how they're muddy for no good reason, grainy to distraction in a couple of exteriors (particularly a sled/kayak chase), and lousy with compression artifacts. Two possibilities for this: Warner, as Bill recently speculated in these pages, is pushing the upgrade to next-gen formats in bad faith; or "why bother?" Meanwhile, the DD 5.1 audio is loud and clear, even obnoxious, but it's sorely lacking in separation. What you get instead is a wall of indistinct noise that makes your legs itch for want of your very own unaccompanied minor to kick savagely. On another track, Feig, Black, and screenwriters Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark contribute a convivial commentary that begins promisingly enough with the observation that Unaccompanied Minors is one of the worst-reviewed films of all time. They don't actually contemplate the reasons for this, and in this way highlight much of what's wrong with the picture. I did enjoy the long reverie Feig gets into after observing that many of the film's gags were improvised by the cast--doing a bit of back-pedalling as soon as he remembers that he's sitting in the same room as the screenwriters, whose work the cast has just buried beneath their own improvisation. Not to say that Unaccompanied Minors is ever funny, but these moments of discomfort certainly are. I was glad to learn that Black is a playwright and that Teri Garr--who has an awkward cameo in the picture--starred in his first produced play.
"Charlie's Dance Reel" (3 mins.) is more of James demonstrating he can hoof it up with the best of them, intercut with bloopers of the kids cracking up and falling down (and falling down and cracking up). Seven additional scenes (6 mins.) include a long alternate opening that further demeans Spencer for no good reason while establishing him as every bit as shallow as the Socs Unaccompanied Minors ostensibly disdains. You could say that the new opening is an improvement, I guess. "Guards in the Hall" (21 mins.) has the three "Kids" alums ad-libbing in a hallway in a way that suggests that they should Rosencrantz & Guildenstern this piece of shit to allow for these guys--legitimately funny and still a little fringe--a room of their own. Originally published: August 21, 2007.