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Sunday, March 09, 2008

College Road Trip

Parenthood rots peoples’ brains. I’m sorry, Pumpkins, but it does. Oh, I know I’ll hear from the parents now because whenever I write about ‘family movies’ I can always expect hate mail if I criticize anything about the films, but especially if I point out that either the parents or the children in the films act as if they checked their brains at the studio gates. It seems that parents just can’t separate real life from reel life, and so I take the hit. Maybe I use too many big words? I’ve been accused of that too, but that’s a whole other topic and I haven’t the time or patience to write in only single syllable words.

Truly though, does Hollywood even make ‘family movies’ these days that don’t require either the parents or the children or both to act like idiots in order to drive the plot? Who would go see a movie about a
College Road Trip if you knew it was going to include 700 miles of dull driving, rest stops to pee, and dining at roadside Burger Kings, ending with the potential student arriving safely, waving goodbye to her Dad as the credits roll? Boring. Let’s face it, people go to the movies to escape that kind of dull chore, and they want to see the same exercise done with laughs, a few faux crises, and a whole lot of examples of “Oh no he didn’t!” behavior from the Dad and some eye-rolling “Oh, brother!” moments from the daughter.

For this season’s “Oh no he didn’t!” movie, we have
College Road Trip, from Disney no less. And starring formerly foul-mouthed Martin Lawrence no less, AND former “Cosby Show” cutie Raven Symoné AND, brace yourself even more, Mormon poster-boy Donny Osmond. I would never in a million years have thought I’d see lewd Lawrence and darling Donny on-screen together, yet alone hugging and kissing (G-rated style) as friends. As far as I know the temperature in Hell is a moderate 515⁰ Fahrenheit today, so I guess all is still right with the world. Maybe Raven Symoné, as one of the film’s Executive Producers, pulled some strings with God or the other guy to bring it all together, but despite its creative stunt casting combo, it still doesn’t help this alleged comedy make it past the alleged stage.

If
College Road Trip is meant to be a laugh-your-socks-off-comedy, then it falls far short of the mark. It plays like a rusty sitcom episode without the laugh track necessary to prompt audiences when to chuckle. While College Road Trip is filmed in vivid Technicolor, it might as well be in the black and white world of Pleasantville, that mythical land within a television set that Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon accidentally visited in the same-titled film from 1998. In Pleasantville, everything and everybody was as easygoing as a 1950s All-American town was supposed to be, at least as it is optimistically remembered in the faded memories of those who were actually alive 60 years ago? For them, and the television audiences of that era, reality was altered, filtered through enough network and product sponsor censors to make sure there was nothing remotely unpalatable to make the meekest of individuals uncomfortable. College Road Trip suffers from much the same process, sanitizing the world, the characters, the language, and the humor to a point that nothing feels real or in any way relatable.

I’ve known many African American families in my life yet I’ve never known any with such dull personalities. For that matter, I’ve never met a white family this boring either, but since the movie is about an African American family I do think it is fair to bring up that (obviously taboo) subject never acknowledged by anyone in College Road Trip: race. I’m not saying that anybody needs to be living like 50¢ in Get Rich or Die Tryin' or Denzel Washington in American Gangster, but when Symoné’s Melanie announces that she has decided to go to Georgetown University in Washington D.C., it seems like at least one of her parents might ask why Georgetown and then follow up with a suggestion that if she insists on going to school so far from home she might want to look into Howard University, also in D.C., or maybe consider Morehouse in Atlanta, both well-known and prestigious black colleges I’m just sayin’. Instead, the robotic Porter parents just act as if this is one of those sitcom moments in which their roles could be played by “Happy Days” Marion Ross and Tom Bosley. James (Lawrence, obviously) is stricken to know his “baby girl” would ever think of going to school more than”28 minutes” from home (he’s timed his drive to Northwestern on several occasions). Naturally, this leads to an obvious (to him anyway) chance to bond by taking Melanie on the 700 mile trip to D.C. Unfortunately, mom Michelle (Kym Whitley; tv’s “The Boondocks”) is a realtor and has to stay home to show some properties over the weekend and look after the Porters’ gifted 6-year-old son Trey (debuting cutie Eshaya Draper), a chess playing genius whose latest project is creating a secret weapon for our military, a platoon of arms-carrying pigs to work in war zones. I think they just inserted Trey and his prototype pig into the story so we could have the sitcom staple “animal goes wild” scene during the sagging middle section of the picture (as opposed to the sagging beginning and sagging ending portions). You’ll know as soon as you see there is a big wedding celebration going on and a heretofore unseen character announce the outrageous price of a food sculpture that they might as well flash PIG ALERT! on the bottom of the screen because while the hammy little actor is on a leash and supposedly going nowhere near the sculpture, it’s a fait accompli that ugliness will ensue, as (one would hope) will the laughs. Not so much.

As I said at the beginning, the high point of the piece is the meshing of Lawrence and Donny Osmond (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), as Doug Greenhut, another father on a road trip of his own with his own daughter. Greenhut continually runs into Porter and rescues him from trouble whenever they meet. Osmond cranks up the wattage of his already hokey squeaky clean image to a point that is downright silly. He sings, dances, and sings some more, mostly showtunes from “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I” among others. The final scene of the movie, its funniest, belongs entirely to Osmond, which is saying a lot considering he is neither the star nor co-star of the feature, but he does get the biggest snort of the night with his final 30 seconds on-screen.

What
College Road Trip does do well is sentiment, and now that Martin Lawrence has become a father, he has let that brain rot take away his finest “crazy” persona and he has resolved to make movies he can be proud to take his own real life daughter to, so the smut talk from his early days (Talkin' Dirty After Dark) has given way to more and more mellow roles, from Big Momma’s House in 2000 and then to last year’s Wild Hogs. At the rate he is going, in another five years he’ll be playing Barbie AND Ken if he’s not careful. In College Road Trip, though, he does do a good job in conveying the struggle he has as a Dad letting go of the child he still sees as a little girl even though she’s grown into a capable young woman. It’s not funny, but in the one scene where he watches his “baby” say “I love you” before turning to go into her dorm for the first time, the look on Lawrence’s face is gut-wrenchingly honest and makes you wish the rest of the movie could have come half this close to being as authentic. Now that would be a College Road Trip I’d want to take.

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