The Hollywood habit of making features out of old television shows continues despite the fact that for every “Addams Family” there are ten “Beverly Hillbillies.” The very thought that Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners” should finally have fallen victim to the trend would be enough to cause fans of the comic once known as The Great One to gag, even if the effort were supremely faithful to the source and the result hilarious. They’re not, of course.
That being said, this African-American updating of “The Honeymooners” isn’t as bad as one might expect–which, unfortunately, isn’t saying much, because expectations probably hovered around something of the quality of “Car 54, Where Are You?” And although the picture doesn’t descend to that execrable level, it’s quite a poor enough cousin to the old program.
Cedric the Entertainer certainly has the bulk, the bravado and the underlying likableness to take on the Ralph Kramden role, and he seems more at home in it than he did as the buffoonish patriarch of “Johnson Family Vacation.” Mike Epps, meanwhile, brings his own brand of bewildered goofiness to Art Carney’s old part as Ed Norton. (At one point, in a pool hall scene, he tries to mimic Carney’s drive-you-crazy-with-preparation shtick, though he can’t pull it off.) The script by a quartet of writers retains some basic elements from the show: Ralph’s still an NYC bus driver and Ed a sewer worker, and the latter still lives in the apartment above the former’s. Most importantly, Ralph is still the blowhard dreamer who’s constantly getting himself involved in hairbrained get-rich-quick schemes and dragging poor Norton along with him. But there are significant changes. The background is changed to the present, and the economic circumstances of the characters upgraded–these Kramdens and Nortons might still technically be lower middle-class, but they’re a lot more comfortably off than their fifties namesakes. And the wives are very different. Alice (Gabrielle Newton) and Trixie (Regina Hall) now work outside the home, in an old-fashioned diner run by a stereotypical elderly Chinese man. And Alice in particular has been substantially softened. The sharp-tongued exchanges that Audrey Meadows’ wife had with Gleason’s Ralph are missing here, which explains why the stock character of her mother is expanded substantially (in the person of Carol Woods) to take her place in that regard.
As to the plot, to use the term loosely, Ralph is involved once more in frittering away the family’s meagre savings on a crackpot idea: to buy (at auction) an old Pullman car Norton’s found entombed under the city streets, turn it into a tour bus, and become a rich entrepreneur. To do so he drains the savings Alice wants to use to buy her dream house. But of course the scheme turns out to be a bust, and Ralph and Ed are forced to resort to desperate measures (montage time, with bits like break-dancing in the park) to replenish the Kramden funds. But another opportunity presents itself when the duo find an abandoned greyhound with which, after various predictable mishaps, they hope to win a big race. An obstacle arises, however, in the form of a sleazy property developer (Eric Stoltz) who’s out to get the house Alice has her eye on and sabotages Ralphie Boy’s best-laid plans.
There’s certainly nothing unpredictable in the way the writers have worked all this out–we have not only that inevitable montage for Cedric and Epps to cavort around in, but also the obligatory tiff-and-reconciliation between Ralph and Alice, the fat jokes now delivered by Alice’s mother rather than Alice herself, the bumbling inanities the boys deliver in trying to seem knowledgeable about Pullman cars and dog racing, the canine humor as the mutt proves unwilling to race, the apparent crash of Ralph’s hopes followed by a swift reversal of fortune. Nor is there any zest to the way it’s all staged by John Schultz, who simply gives his stars free rein and has the camera plod along watching; despite the presence of Cedric and Epps , this is a mostly flaccid movie, played without energy or verve, and the mediocre material leaves them looking stranded and desperate. Union and Hall come off even worse, and one has to pity Stoltz and Jon Polito, who has the unenviable task of doing prolonged double-takes at Ralph and Ed’s witless remarks. In fact, the only time the picture really sparks is when Jon Leguizamo pops up as a fast-talking, casually larcenous dog trainer named Dodge. Doing the same sort of riffs that fill his one-man shows, he leaves everyone around him–including the dog–several laps behind. Technically the picture has the wearyingly bright, slightly tacky look characteristic of second-rate comedies.
The Gleason-Carney-Meadows “Honeymooners” was a classic that viewers even now come back to again and again with pleasure, as though celebrating successive anniversaries. This misguided retread is no classic, and is likely to elicit a request for a quick annulment instead.