|Martin Lawrence plays an overprotective father, and Raven-Symoné is his college-bound daughter. (JOHN CLIFFORD/DISNEY ENTERPRISES)|
In these dumbed-downed days of humor, by what measure should a comedy be judged a success?
One yardstick: Try watching it with a theater full of tweens. If they giggle at a packed evening screening, is that proof enough that a family-friendly film like "College Road Trip" works?
My personal guffaw-o-meter hardly registered a tremor. But a G-rated crowd of kids and their tolerant parents seemed mildly amused by this highly formulaic, make-'em-laugh-then-make-'em-cry comedy.
Martin Lawrence practically texts in a sitcom-worthy performance as James Porter, an overprotective but (of course) good-hearted dad. He loves his daughter, Melanie, so darned much he won't release her from his smothering parental grasp. Porter plays a police chief in an idyllic, color-blind town outside of Chicago. He freaks out imagining his pride and joy as a pre-law student at far-away Georgetown. He'd rather she go to Northwestern. On a road trip to her college interview, "Chief" sets out with Melanie, intent on sabotaging her dreams in what Disney promises is a "hilarious nightmare adventure full of comical misfortune and turmoil." Well, not quite.
Melanie is played by TV's Raven-Symoné ("That's So Raven," "Kim Possible," "The Cosby Show"). Nearly 23, she hardly passes for a high school senior. Whatever. Raven-Symoné's energy sets her apart from her bland costars, stereotypes like the brainy little brother, the secretly supportive mom, and a busload of - what? you're kidding - Japanese tourists? But the four-person screenwriting team (danger! danger!) won't give her and Lawrence much material beyond rough slapstick gags and syrupy father-daughter scenes.
As Chief Porter and daughter drive from Chicago to D.C., they discover little bro and the family pet pig as stowaways, flip their vehicle, crash a wedding (quite literally), and get swept up in an impromptu karaoke performance; naturally, life lessons are learned along the way. Miscommunications lead to heart-to-hearts and teary disclosures. "I was afraid if I let you go, you'd never need your daddy again," poor Lawrence is forced to say. To which Raven-Symoné must reply, "I'm not that little girl anymore, Daddy." "Little Miss Sunshine"-level screenwriting this is not.
Roger Kumble ("Just Friends," "The Sweetest Thing") directs in a workaday and functional manner. Cinematographer Theo van de Sande drenches his compositions with steroid-infused sunlight. A predictable chase scene finale combines sky divers and golf carts rushing to that Georgetown interview, but still fails to fire up this studio beast.
It's a dark day indeed when a movie's funniest moments involve Donny Osmond. As a show tune-singing father to another college-bound daughter, he's a bright spot broadly parodying his Whitest Man in America persona. Otherwise, wrong turn.
Looked at in another way, "College Road Trip" is a brilliant work of social engineering. The movie puts forth a utopian worldview of black middle-class bliss, where skin color doesn't affect one's aspirations, peer group, or real estate values. Black, white, Asian - all is race-dim and harmonious in our land. Even Chief Porter knows Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Getting to Know You."
And if that gets kids laughing, how bad can it be?
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.