'Camp' Gooding: Art & Craft Aren't In the Program

How did he get so lost in the wilderness? Cuba Gooding Jr. in
How did he get so lost in the wilderness? Cuba Gooding Jr. in "Daddy Day Camp." (By Susie Ramos -- Tristar Pictures)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

We come to bury Cuba Gooding Jr., not to praise him.

Why? We just saw him in "Daddy Day Camp," and he leaves us no choice. The 39-year-old actor's latest role -- as a hapless dad in charge of a run-down summer camp -- isn't one stumble in an otherwise fabulous career. It's a career of perpetual stumbles. And it's gotten to the point where Gooding's presence on a marquee practically guarantees we'll be bashing our heads against the seat in front of us.

Bonk, bonk, bonk.

Lest you think we exaggerate, let's remind you of just a few highlights from a decade of howlers: Cuba as a straight man caught on a gay cruise in 2002's "Boat Trip"? That was Cuba gyrating aboard in gold lamé drag. (And you thought "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" was full of cringe-inducing stereotypes . . . ) Then there was Cuba as the advertising executive forced to run a gospel group -- hallelujah! -- in 2003's "The Fighting Temptations." We've tried to block out memories of him mugging like a clown with "surprise" as his cellphone rings in a hushed church. We won't forget him, either, as the ice cream truck driver in "Chill Factor," obliged to transport co-star Skeet Ulrich and a biological weapon to safety. (The bomb had to be kept below 50 degrees, hence the ice cream truck.) Gooding's wooden retorts ("Every time I look at you, I want to hit you"), meant as comic relief, made us root for the bomb.

Even Gooding's Oscar-seeking roles, as Chief Carl Brashear in 2000's "Men of Honor," for instance, or the developmentally challenged title character in 2003's "Radio," are fraught with such maudlin moments -- his face contorted with the strain of performing for the Academy -- that they distract us from the character instead of drawing us in.

So in "Daddy Day Camp," here we sit -- brokenhearted but hardly surprised -- as Gooding endures the abuse of several one-dimensional kid stereotypes (the tubby redheaded guy, the clique-conscious girl, and a Caucasian poor boy named Mullethead). And we watch, with a sense of deja vu, Gooding widening his eyes at an exploding methane toilet, or rolling them in horror after a kid barfs on his feet. And as we savor his perpetual smile of bravery -- the one that seems to be saying, "How much longer do I have to keep this up?" -- we ask the same question of ourselves.

As with any funeral, we try to remember the good times, when we actually enjoyed watching Gooding on-screen. For that, we hark back to 1991's "Boyz N the Hood" when -- as the sweet-hearted 17-year-old Tré Styles -- Gooding negotiated a perilous passage through the dangers of South Central Los Angeles. That manful tear that coursed down his cheek at one point? Powerful business. And best of all, we recall his Oscar-winning performance in 1996's "Jerry Maguire," in which, as super-athlete Rod Tidwell, he ordered his agent (Tom Cruise) to "show me the money." (The routine and the phrase have become such an integral part of pop culture, we barely remember the source.) He lacked self-consciousness back then -- that sense he needed to be funny, touching or deep. He lived in the moment, so we believed he was Tré or Rod. Now we know he's just Cuba Gooding.

Daddy Day Camp (89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild bodily humor and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company