Silence. It's not what you're supposed to hear from an audience during a comedy, but it was pervasive for at least the first half of "Unaccompanied Minors" during the sneak preview I attended. Then Tyler James Williams, who plays the young Chris Rock in the TV hit "Everybody Hates Chris," inserted a tape of "The Sidewinder," the catchy jazz classic by Lee Morgan, into a cassette player, and launched into an inimitable, glee-and-guffaw-provoking dance that constituted the first protracted jollity in the film.
Things got better -- if never totally satisfactory -- from that point on. However, the 10- and 12-year-old boys plus mother who sat in the row behind me enjoyed the latter part (featuring the obligatory pat happy ending) enough to declare the film "funny," so perhaps others will, too.
I certainly expected more from a film starring stand-up comedian Lewis Black, "America's Foremost Commentator on Everything" on "The Daily Show," and Wilmer Valderrama, whose every utterance, practically, as foreign student Fez on "That '70s Show" is funny. Unfortunately, this is yet another formulaic Hollywood holiday film -- and not even one of the better ones.
The setup is basically "Home Alone" meets "The Breakfast Club." A bunch of kids traveling alone -- unaccompanied minors, or UMs, in airline code -- are snowbound at an airport on Christmas Eve. After witnessing the hellish pandemonium in the UM room where they're supposed to stay, five of the kids escape and spend the rest of the night evading airport officials. One of the latter, Passenger Relations Assistant Zach Van Bourke (Valderrama), likes kids but has to answer to his nasty boss, Oliver Porter (Lewis Black), who's in an even worse temper than usual after having his first vacation in 15 years -- a trip to Hawaii -- canceled by the storm.
The five young escapees represent different "types," naturally. Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) and Grace (Gina Mantegna, daughter of actor Joe), both around 15, are the oldest kids. Spencer is the cute nice guy and natural leader; Grace is the spoiled rich girl. Charlie (Williams) is the techno-savvy geek; Donna (Quinn Malone) is the tough, working-class girl; 12-year-old "Beef" (Brett Kelly, the Kid in "Bad Santa") is the giant but childish fat kid. When Spencer learns that his little sister, Kate (Dominique Saldana) and the other kids have been transferred to the airport inn nearby, the other four agree to help him get there by 4:30 a.m., when Kate expects Santa to leave a present for her.
Probably the biggest laughs come from a recurring physical bit with a pop-up snowman. Williams provides most of the other chuckles. As "straight man," Christopher is hard to warm up to, and Valderrama, while likable, shows only a brief flash of Fez-type humor. Black's trademark sarcasm isn't so funny when leveled at kids.
Review: 2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Lewis Black, Wilmer Valderrama, Tyler James Williams, Dyllan Christopher, Grace Mantegna, Brett Kelly and Quinn Malone
DIRECTOR: Paul Feig
RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes
RATING: PG for mild rude humor and language
THE LOWDOWN: Five kids stranded in an airport during a blizzard on Christmas Eve evade officials after escaping from the facility's hellish kids' quarters.