The oddly named Nick Persons (Ice Cube) talks to his Satchel Paige bobblehead doll. This means a few things in Are We There Yet?. One, he’s a former minor league baseball player with respect for history. Two, he’s now owner of a sports collectibles business in Portland. Three, he’s got a brand new Navigator, outfitted with fine interior, spinners, and the doll on the dashboard, all in the hopes of attracting babes. And four, he’s apparently in desperate need of a friend, or confidant, or mentor. Sadly, Satchel, CGI-ed to approximate human expressions and voiced by Tracy Morgan, only offers corny jokes and uninspired observations concerning Nick’s date prospects.
These start early, as Nick rolls his shiny new ride down the street, parking it directly in front of his store (parking in Portland — no problem). His buddy-employee Marty (Jay Mohr, apparently looking for work following the demise of Last Comic Standing) gushes. And Nick announces, for what seems the millionth time, judging by Marty’s reaction, his bachelor’s creed: he loves women, hates kids (they’re “like cockroaches, except you can’t squoosh ’em”), and oh yes, he’s defiantly ungrown-up himself. In other words, he’s ripe for a life lesson.
This comes in the form of a ready-to-wear family, Suzanne (Nia Long) and her Home Alone-inspired children, 11-year-old Lindsay (Aleisha Allen, so charming in The School of Rock) and 7-year-old Kevin (Philip Daniel Bolden). As much as Nick might be interested in their mom, they want to see him pummeled, begooped, abused, and bruised. Mom is their property, and they want to preserve her for the dad they think will eventually come back (mom is not telling them the whole story, of course, that dad is otherwise involved, and hat he’s canceling dates with them to be with the new fam, ensconced in a new house, with new car and sweater to go with).
For his part, Nick is sorely tempted by the mother but alarmed by the kids. Still, formula triumphs, Nick succumbs to his apparent good nature and desire to please when an emergency (really, a series of them) leads him to be driving the kiddies from Oregon to Vancouver, where mom is working and awaiting them. Sooner than you can say Johnson Family Vacation, the kids are tossing their drinks and puking all over the Navigator’s swank interior, not to mention locking Nick out of the car long enough to drive it around a gas station parking lot.
In fact, the vehicle goes through all manner of destruction (eventually, it blows up), as does Jack, the most notable being a very bumpy ride on a horse and an awful encounter with a giant Paul Bunyan’s axe, aimed between his legs. It’s only when he’s fully beaten and banged up that he discovers the true meaning of familial togetherness and mutual support (this even as Suzanne learns nothing, not even forgiveness or honesty; it’s lucky that Long so dependably out-acts her parts).
At first glance, such emasculation humor seems a depressing departure for the erstwhile Amerikkka’s Most Wanted — note especially the fun the film takes in goofing on Cube’s famous “snarl” — but it’s potentially (not necessarily, but potentially) more complicated than mere “selling out.” While Cube has certainly built an empire of sorts, between his music career, Cube Vision (which produced this film as well as the Friday and Barbershop franchises, as well as the often remarkable Players Club, which Cube also directed), and his successful affiliations with other artists (NWA, Westside Connection). That he’s now working on a history-of-hip-hop themed cartoon series along with this, his first PG-rated film, means that Cube (a father himself) is bringing hip-hop, or some aspect of it, to children. History is good to know. But how transgressive or progressive is slapsticky stupid comedy, the sort of comedy that has earned groans when deployed by straight white folks for decades? Isn’t there another way to infiltrate?
This isn’t to say that all hip-hop needs to change the world, or even aspire to progressive politics. Clearly, this is not the case for the majority of profitable, millions-of-units-moving hip-hop. But it is to wonder what’s at issue for this commercial infusion. What are the costs of being conventional and is it possible to change the mainstream in any substantive way, when the way in means not scaring, surprising, or worrying anyone?