How do movies like “Unaccompanied Minors” happen? If you assemble a cast of solid comic actors in a Christmas-set comedy, wouldn’t there be more comedy gold than coal to mine? Actually, this plays like a junior version of Nora Ephron’s equally baffling yuletide farce, “Mixed Nuts.” The biggest difference between the two is that Ephron’s movie has slightly more laughs but really, these are two holiday movies that endear as much as broken toys.
The story: a cluster of kids traveling during Christmas are stuck in an airport and spend a night bonding amid lots of mischief and running around.
Let’s do a roll call of the talent involved: after the forgettable drama, “I Am David,” this is the first comedy directed by none other than Paul Feig, who later made “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy” and the regrettable “Ghostbusters” remake (which is still a better movie by “Unaccompanied Minors” by a mile). The best and worst of Feig are on display here: he gives his talented cast members moments to shine but also allows improvisation to slow scenes down to a crawl. If the idea was to shift the attention from the weak screenplay and give the cast opportunities to make up something better, it didn’t work.
The top-billed headliners in the cast are Lewis Black, in his only starring film role to date, and Wilmer Valderrama. Black’s acidic, viciously funny style of comedy seems an unlikely match for a syrupy family comedy. On the other hand, this was that period where Valderrama was trying to branch out from playing Fez in “That 70’s Show” by appearing in this and Richard Linklater’s underappreciated “Fast Food Nation.” Today, Valerderrama is still best remembered as Fez from “That 70’s Show.”
Also in the cast are Rob Corddry, Rob Riggle, Kristin Wiig, Jessica Walter, David Koechner, B.J. Kovak, Mindy Kaling, Tony Hale, Ben Falcone, the former cast of “The Kids in the Hall” and an uncredited Teri Garr. That’s a lot of funny people, stuck in a movie that isn’t all that funny. The opening montage is of kids either fainting or freaking out over department store Santa’s Not a bad idea but, again, not funny.
The one-sentence pitch was obviously “Home Alone in an airport” but it all feels too calculated and not genuinely charming. A mistake most of these comedies make is indulging in scores of scenes with kids behaving badly. It has limited appeal for its target audience and plays like fingers on a chalkboard for adults. I don’t like watching kids act destructive and acting out in real life, why would I want to watch it in a movie?!
Of the many young adults in the cast, Tyler James Williams makes the best impression. Williams, who would later star in “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Dear White People,” shines brightly and has a great bit where he does a solo dance. Its honestly the best part of the movie and the only scene from “Unaccompanied Minors” that lingers in the memory. There’s also Brett Kelly (best known as “Sherman Merman” from “Bad Santa”) and Gia Mantegna (Joe Mantegna’s talented daughter) but the youngsters are stuck in generic, one-note roles. By the ending, in which a nativity scene in the airport brings all the disgruntled passengers and the kids together, everything I was watching felt like a total crock.