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Hard to find humor in a fixer-upper

`Are We Done Yet?' draws out Ice Cube's trademark snarl, but it's not enough to save the film from silliness.

April 04, 2007|Sam Adams | Special to The Times

Few experiences skirt closer to the absurdity of farce than the process of remodeling a home. The delirious dislocations of Feydeau have nothing on the moment when your contractor informs you that the cute little faucet you picked up on the cheap will cost a college education to install. Oh, and that wall will have to go.

Excruciating as it is in real life, the comedy of contracting is a dicey proposition on screen as well. It's hard to milk laughs from a couple fearing their future is flowing away one inflated estimate at a time. The best comedy comes from pain, but some wounds never quite heal. Why not pick something less fearsome, like dentistry?

In "Are We Done Yet?," Nick Persons (Ice Cube) is chasing two dreams at once: launching a magazine and acquiring the perfect country home. Three if you count the family -- wife Suzanne (Nia Long), stepchildren Lindsey (Aleisha Allen) and Kevin (Philip Bolden) -- he intends to house in it. Although it reuses the cast of characters from 2005's "Are We There Yet?," "Are We Done ... " began life as a remake of the 1948 Cary Grant comedy "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," and is far less grating than its ostensible prequel.

Intent on proving his masculine decisiveness, Nick snaps up the sprawling manse from a beguiling real estate agent (a frisky John C. McGinley) without waiting for a home inspection. And that, as they say, is where his troubles begin. The wood floors have termites, the antique wall sconces have wiring to match, and the vermin won't relocate.

Making matters worse, the realty agent's favorite general contractor turns out to be himself -- and, this being a small town, he also serves as city inspector, issuing hefty fines for substandard work. Anyone who's nursed a sneaking suspicion that home ownership is merely a ruse to separate people from their life savings will be gratified by the confirmation that the forces eating through their home-improvement loans are in cahoots.

The vast conspiracy mounted against him leaves Nick with little to do but watch as steam emerges from his ears. In "Mr. Blandings ... ," Grant spun dozens of variations on his patented slow burn and still managed only a middling performance, and 1986's "The Money Pit" reduced Tom Hanks to a sour-faced ninny. A likable but limited screen presence, the best Ice Cube can do is open his mouth and blink a lot.

Like Chris Rock's "I Think I Love My Wife," a remake of Eric Rohmer's "Love in the Afternoon," "Are We Done ... " shaves the edges off Ice Cube's abrasive persona. Signaling an intriguing trendlet, both remakes address the overlooked black middle class (or, in Rock's case, upper-middle), signaling a welcome willingness to tap a fresh market (and, less promisingly, a dearth of fresh ideas). But where Rock's film addresses the difficulty of being black and prosperous in the lily-white suburbs, "Are We Done ... " deploys gags involving talking raccoons and shark-size sturgeon, as well as visiting every type of humiliation on Ice Cube's battered frame.

In "Are We There ... ," Ice Cube's confirmed bachelor fully earned the tortures visited on him by his bratty not-yet-stepkids. In "Are We Done ... ," he's more of a born loser, a self-styled tough guy ill-equipped to deal with a new set of problems. Although Ice Cube is still happy to haul out his old snarl when it serves his purposes, he's clearly trying to reinvent himself as a family entertainer. But the milder he gets, the less confident he seems. What's a reformed gangsta rapper to do?

"Are We Done Yet?" MPAA rating: PG for some innuendos and brief language. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. In general release.

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