Gleaming the Cube

Chill, Hollywood, chill: Ice Cube in 'Are We There Yet?'
Sony Pictures Entertainment

Speaking as one whose late adolescence included roughly 200 spins of Ice Cube's blistering rap on "Burn Hollywood Burn" ("Let's check out a flick that exploits the color...Don't fight the power/Just shoot the muthafucka"), I'll admit it's a little odd to discover the artist some 15 years later playing the lead in a de facto remake of Adventures in Babysitting. The movie's image of a cap-sporting Cube on horseback, chasing a train that's whisking away his mischievous preteen charges (while he sweet-talks their clueless mom by cell), made me wonder if this could possibly be the same Cube whose "Gangsta's Fairytale" offered a rather different view of kids acting out.

But the bigger surprise is that Are We There Yet? ain't half-bad; matter of fact, it's downright peppy at times. And Cube's rationale for having co-produced and starred in it--which he explains from the couch in his suite at the Grand Hotel in Minneapolis--makes perfect sense even as it follows my insinuating reference to old rap lyrics that were...uh, a bit critical of American studio filmmaking.

"You mean 'Burn Hollywood Burn?'" says Cube with an easy laugh. "Well, I think things have definitely gotten better. Fifteen years ago, you couldn't have imagined Will Smith doing Shark Tale. Or me doing this movie: Even a little while back, Hollywood could've only considered Adam Sandler or Ben Affleck in this part. But I can do it, you know? I can be charming and funny, right?"

Absolutely. Playing a sports memorabilia-store owner who loves the ladies, but not children ("They're like cockroaches, except you can't squish 'em"), Cube proves especially witty in scenes opposite Nia Long as the kids' newly divorced mother Suzanne. "How can I ever repay you?" Suzanne asks when Cube's committed bachelor Nick agrees to escort her bratty kids (Aleisha Allen, Philip Daniel Bolden) from Portland to Vancouver on New Year's Eve. Cube, pondering an uneven trade of some sort, turns to the camera and gives a little wink that's more goofy than lewd. Owing, perhaps, to his ample experience laying dope rhymes atop phat beats, Ice Cube has his timing down cold. When skeptical Suzanne notes that Nick hasn't asked even once about her kids the whole time they've been flirting, Cube immediately offers, "How they doin'?"

That insincere concern of Nick's turns genuine over the course of a bodily fluid-filled 300-mile trip, which will astound not a single person in the audience, young kids included. What one doesn't expect is the richness of the explanation: Turns out Nick's dad--like Suzanne's husband and plenty of other black fathers--flew the coop as well. So when Nick tries to console the kids by telling them that Dad is the "failure in this thing," he's speaking from personal experience.

As is Cube. "I definitely brought myself into the part," he says, leaning far enough forward to send his silver chain swaying gently over an Are We There shirt. "I have four kids, so I know what it's like. You have to set limits, not let the work consume you. I have a rule that I won't take a meeting after 5:30. I'm not one of these guys who goes out at all hours to meet about projects. At night, I'm with the family."

Cube's first message movie was Boyz N the Hood in 1991; his quick trip to the Twins this month included a baking session with at-risk North Side kids at the nonprofit Cookie Cart. Does he see Are We There Yet? as political? "I do, yeah. There's the pro-fatherhood thing, for sure. But there's also the fact that a black man from South Central L.A. is starring in a $40 or $50 million Hollywood movie. That's political."

And cause for celebration, too. Might the "plantation" of "Burn Hollywood Burn" have finally gone up in smoke? "Things still really need to change in the executive arena," says Cube, who's clearly proud of having co-produced three of his last four films (including Barbershop 2 and the forthcoming Beauty Shop). "I mean, we still have movies about poor black people being thought up by rich white people. That's not right."

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