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Unaccompanied Minors

(2006) ** 1/2 Pg
89 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Paul Feig. Cast: Wilmer Valderrama, Dyllan Christopher, Gina Mantegna, Quinn Shephard, Tyler J. Williams.

A new generation of kids gets its John Hughes on with Unaccompanied Minors, a comedic social fantasy that allows middle-class kids of divorce to romp freely in an airport and, in the process, create a new family. Awww. The good news is that Warners' family comedy has a truly unusual pedigree. Conspicuous among its executive producers is Ira Glass, host of NPR's beloved This American Life: indeed, the film's story originated as a segment on that show. And the film's director is Paul Feig, known for Freaks and Geeks and his directorial work on TV's best sitcoms.

It's Christmas Eve in Hoover International Airport. When heavy snows ground all flights, passenger-relations manager Oliver Porter (growly Lewis Black) orders underling Zach (Wilmer Valderrama) to fill up the "unaccompanied minors room." Led to the chaos, plucky Spencer (voice-cracking Dyllan Christopher) quickly notes, "It's like Lord of the Flies in here."

An impromptu escape into the terminals thrusts Spencer and his sister Katherine (Dominique Saldana) together with four others: spoiled rich girl Grace (Gina Mantegna), Santa-shy tech-nerd Charlie (Tyler James Williams of Everyone Hates Chris), tomboy Donna (Quinn Shephard), and "Beef" (Brett Kelly of Bad Santa), a simpleton toting his only friend: an Aquaman action figure. Though they're ostensibly miserable, the kids begin having fun by hijacking airport carts, rummaging through a playland of unclaimed baggage, and generally eluding capture by the adults.

Porter has a point when he spouts, "Are you out of your juice-drinking little minds?!" Of course, minors shouldn't be unaccompanied, much less in the hazardous areas of an airport, which makes Porter a strange kind of "villain" (in a Christmasy about-face, Porter responds to the children's sympathy). It helps that Feig is aware of this formulaic comedy's hoary clichés and works a bit harder than the average hack to earn the audience's affection.

Feig's attempts mostly involve his rounding up a couple of Daily Show veterans (Black and Rob Corrdry), two from the cast of Arrested Development (Jessica Walter and Tony Hale), two writer-performers from The Office (B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling), three Kids in the Hall (Bruce McCullough, Mark McKinney and Kevin MacDonald), Paget Brewster, David Koechner, Dave "Gruber" Allen to support the cusp-of-puberty leads. Even a disturbing-looking Teri Garr, now heavy and apparently surgery-damaged, manages to pull a laugh by picture's end.

More importantly, Feig has a bona fide star-in-the-making in Williams—just watch him dance to Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," and you'll be hooked (in another surprisingly effective scene, Kelly spins gold from the comedic equivalent of brittle straw: the ol' lousy-kung-fu sight gag). Among other ways for parents to bide their time: checking off the political allusions (conservatives will enjoy a subplot at the expense of biodiesel-fueled cars, but wait a tick, isn't that State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration in Novak's hands?). Yes, it's old hat, but as family pictures go, Unaccompanied Minors is surprisingly bearable.

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