I have a friend who used to deliver pizzas in a rural Ohio college town. One day someone called into his pizza place and asked them to list all the toppings they had at their disposal. My friend started rattling them off - pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, so on - and after a few seconds the guy cut my friend off. He said that he wanted a pizza with all of the toppings. My friend tried to reason with him by explaining that too many toppings would overload the crust and make it soggy. My friend encouraged him to try one of their specials which had been custom designed to create the best possible taste combinations. But this drunk guy was obsessed with the idea that the perfect pizza would have every topping imaginable, and that's what he ordered.
Now, Unaccompanied Minors is a comedy that is overflowing with great toppings. It's directed by Paul Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids. It's cast includes four Daily Show correspondents, three members of the Kids in the Hall, and two of the Bluths from Arrested Development. (Also a partridge and a pear tree. I'm only half kidding about that; this movie is set at Christmas for maximum sentimentality.) You would think that if you managed to get all of this great comedy talent together a great movie would result. And yet, Unaccompanied Minors is totally a soggy piece of crap.
The set up is simple: it's Christmas Eve and a big snowstorm has stranded a bunch of travelers in the Denver airport. In particular, it has stranded a bunch of children who were in the middle of being shuttled from one divorced parent to the other for the holidays. These kids form a mini-Breakfast Club where the rich girl and the weird boy and the nerd and the talkative one all team up to go on wacky adventures together. They defy the grumpy adult who is in charge of their safety by breaking into the luggage sorting area, they sneak outside and go sledding, they even trade an Aquaman toy for a Christmas tree so they can bring some holiday cheer to the other cranky passengers that are stuck at the airport. And these other passengers actually buy into it! Apparently all they needed were a few bits of tinsel to forget the fact that they just paid a ton of money to sleep in awkward positions in uncomfortable chairs overnight when they were supposed to be seeing their loved ones. It's a Christmas miracle! Or a sentimental piece of jerk-offery. It's at least one of those two things.
I mentioned that this movie has a lot of comedy talent in it. And it does - technically. Unfortunately, all of those Daily Show-ers and Kids and Bluths are background players. I'm used to seeing someone like David Koechner pop up in a random role, steal a scene or two and then disappear - but that works a lot better when he's doing it in a movie that's fronted by someone like Will Ferrell who can keep the momentum going even after Koechner's wacky side character has permanently exited stage left. Here it's super frustrating to see these brilliant comedians pop onscreen briefly only for the film to immediately route us back to some lame babies who wouldn't know a solid one liner if it bit them in the ass. You can cast as many of the Kids in the Hall as you want to - they aren't going to make an impression if you give all of their screen time to some actual kids.
I understand that Unaccompanied Minors focused on the kids because it's a kids movie. But I do think that this film's imbalanced casting suggests that director Paul Feig didn't really know what type of movie he wanted to make. Was the plan always to relegate these scene stealers to meaningless scenes that weren't worth stealing, or did these characters have more to do in earlier drafts of the script? This film is structured in such a way that it will appeal to no one - there's weird stuff going on in the edge of the frame, but instead of indulging those potentially interesting bits Unaccompanied Minors gives us pandering scenes where someone gets hit in the nuts. Who writes a film with five main characters plus a villain, some unnecessary parents and some background players - and then gives the bulk of the screen time to the characters with the least to do played by the actors with the least ability?
Let's return for a second to the guy who ordered a pizza wrong. That guy didn't stick in my memory because he wanted to overload a pizza – I mean, that’s weird, but not memorably weird. No, that guy has been implanted in my memory for a decade now because it turned out that the reason why he was so bad at pizza design is because he was secretly Amish and thus had very little experience with ordering commercially prepared foods for home delivery. (He claimed that he didn’t believe in phones while he was on the phone. That's incredible.) The fact that he was Amish makes the story funnier and more human and just all around better; it takes a story about a guy getting dinner and makes it fascinating.
Unaccompanied Minors could have come back from being overloaded and improperly edited if it had had that little dash of weirdness. The filmmakers could have taken this fantasy set up anywhere, they could have had these kids get into any number of surreal adventures in this magic airport and it’s surrounding environs, but no – this movie just pitched it straight down the middle. This movie wants to pretend that these kids were having the adventure of a lifetime but all they do is go sledding and buy Christmas trees, two things they could have done before or after their airport stay was over. There are a lot of comedies that waste their potential on dull premises - but sometimes a bad movie can redeem itself just by tossing out a few weird details that at least make it memorable. Unfortunately, this is the sort of movie where people do believe in phones, which means that it's inedible and unmemorable and that's an unforgiveable combination.
Winner: The Cat