Late in Are We There Yet?, one nice moment plays off Ice Cube's iconic status as an emblem of militant black rage: The star/producer schools his nerdy, asthmatic young charge (Philip Bolden) on how to stand up to bullies by teaching him Cube's patented scowl. That sweet little bit stands out like a waterfall in the middle of Death Valley.
Cube stars as a kid-hating bachelor who falls for a sexy divorcée and single mother (Nia Long), who wants their relationship to remain strictly platonic, but has no problem with manipulating him into doing her bidding. For reasons far too insulting and implausible to recount, Cube ends up driving Long's two demon-seeds (Bolden and Aleisha Allen) from Oregon to Vancouver, in a trip that turns out to be an endurance test for all involved, especially the audience.
Are We There Yet? all too effectively conveys the claustrophobic horror of being shackled in a small space with two whiny, hateful children. The film would like to think its pint-sized scamps are irascible but strangely lovable, but they're so unpleasant that their father's avoidance of them seems less like bad parenting than good common sense. The film's cynical shift from grating cruelty to unconvincing sentiment begins with the kids watching in horror as their dad warmly embraces his new family. But instead of stirring sympathy for Bolden and Allen, the scene just instills a giddy sense of schadenfreude at their misfortune. Are We There Yet? only ventures into the same hemisphere as comedy during a montage in which Cube looks back at all the many magical moments he's shared with the children over the course of the film, and realizes just how much love he has for them. Even then, the laughter is bitter and ironic, and it comes entirely from the chasm between the amount of paternal affection necessary for the scene to work (considerable), and the amount the film actually earns (none). Never has the old axiom about not working with children or animals seemed wiser.