[12 December 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“¡Ay, caramba!” This would be the sad, somewhat alarming cry of Wilmer Valderrama succumbing to the titular urchins in Unaccompanied Minors. It would also be the sign of the film’s frankly stunning dearth of imagination. Who on the set watched Valderrama beneath a crush of screaming-meemie kids and thought this line funny? Who decided the time was right to call up the memory of Speedy Gonzales?
No matter the origins or circumstances of this particular bad idea, it’s likely that someone saw Unaccompanied Minors as some kind of career move for the many TV-affiliated parties involved, since the “big screen” still carries a kind of step-up cache. Along with the Yo Mama host, the movie lists among its contributors Paul Feig (best known for his directing episodes of Arrested Development and The Office, and writing some of Freaks and Geeks), Huff‘s Paget Brewster, and Everybody Hates Chris’ Tyler James Williams. Still, you have to wonder if any of them read a script before they signed on to this dreary project.
At once tedious and hyper-active, Unaccompanied Minors preaches standard-issue holiday cheer, most especially, that kids and their adults should be together. To make this point, it separates children from their parents, and sends both factions into tizzies. The primary setting is a snowed-in midwestern airport terminal, where a battery of young people, en route to various single-parented destinations, are abandoned and frustrated on Christmas Eve. Whereupon they undertake to outsmart and abuse any and all adults they meet.
The film goes through rudimentary set-up motions. Before they are stranded, the core minors are introduced in a sequence where each is supposed to sit in a department store Santa’s lap. Their reactions to this most annoying aspect of Christmas business establish the kids’ most reductive characteristics. Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) stands on line with his divorced mom Valerie (Brewster) and younger sister Katy (Dominique Saldana), feeling responsible for the latter and bored with the former. (The little girl’s status as prop for her brother’s “arc” is underscored by her eventual encounter with an obnoxious older girl who dresses and makes her up like a doll, with rosy cheeks and lipstick.) At the same time, in some other part of the country, Harvard-bound Charlie (Williams) worries about proper behavior and looking smart all the time (his father encourages such anxiety). At the same time, tomboy Donna (Quinn Shephard) hates to be touched and tends to whomp offenders in the crotch area (apparently, someone thought such assault on a Santa would be hilarious). Wealthy Grace (Gina Mantegna) tries to act older than she is, slithering to the lap of a young-male-model posing at a department store and wearing at Santa hat. And lonely Beef (Brett Kelly) clings to his Aquaman action figure in lieu of a friend.
Once deposited at the airport amid swirling snow, these relatively motivated kids spot one another in a warehouse-sized room full of crazed solo-flying monsters, who are not only assaulting Valderrama’s airport worker, Zach Van Bourke, but also screaming incessantly and throwing candy bars, toys, and furniture, to create the sort of witless noise that passes for “kids’ behavior” in the movies. The film’s stars are horrified (this would be the moment when you might be inclined to align your perspective with theirs), escape the room and start to bond.
The impetus for this last is Spencer’s problem. That is, he has left Katy in the Terrible Room (somewhat inexplicably, given his repeated declaration of his need to take care of her), and then spends the rest of the movie trying to deliver to her a Christmas gift, so she doesn’t lose her cute childish belief in Santa. Spencer’s efforts are paralleled by those of his father Sam (Rob Corddry), whose home in Pennsylvania they are attempting to reach. Once Valerie calls Sam to announce the children are stranded, he decides, rather against reason, to drive to the airport through snow and darkness. Valerie’s own response to the crisis is somewhat less effective: she watches TV (in particular Al Roker describing the extent of the blizzard) and worries, apparently glued to an arm chair at the home of Aunt Judy (Teri Garr). The film takes odd delight in showing Aunt Judy’s yard decorations (lights and a pop-up Santa that knocks down a passer-by). As Valerie frets, Aunt Judy drinks herself into a stupor while wearing still more decorations—ornaments and a Santa hat.
As annoying as these silly adult behaviors may be, the movie’s and the children’s more immediate concern is with their primary adversary, Scroogey airport manager Oliver Porter (Lewis Black). He calls them names and makes it his personal mission to make them feel bad (“Are you out of your juice-drinking little minds?”). The movie uses his ugliness to motivate the kids’ adventures, separately and together, but they don’t need him. And they certainly don’t need to be teaching him the meaning of Christmas.
Still, the movie has the kids go through motions, scooching and scrambling around the airport, discovering unclaimed luggage (offering opportunities for dress-up), self-inflating rafts (physical humor), and a dog in a travel cage (loosed by Spencer, the animal menaces security personnel and is reported to take “a dump in the promenade,” yet another unfunny punch-line).
While it may aspire to fall into the holiday subgenre most famously exemplified by Home Alone, Fieg’s movie is a disappointment in several ways. Crass and unimaginative, it’s more an assembly of disconnected scenes than a movie with a plot (something like an elementary school version of Accepted, with also starred Black as the most obnoxious adult in sight). How did abandoned-turned-chaotic kids become appropriate holiday fare (see also, abandoned-turned-chaotic adults, as in Deck the Halls, Christmas with the Kranks, Ernest Saves Christmas)? Why is the Christmas message in “family movies” repeatedly reduced to splats, farts, bruises, and winky-wink sex jokes? Kids are smarter than this. Maybe someday, adults will get that.