Those of us who grew up glued to the tube in sitcom rerun land remember Jackie Gleason and "The Honeymooners" with a certain fondness. He was all bulky bluster and thwarted desire, a blue-collar Joe hauling his fury around like a giant, aggrieved King Lear. Ralph Kramden was comic because Gleason played him tragic: Here was a man convinced he was master of his domain, an urban Everyman who couldn't be more deluded in his delusions. (Everybody knows that Alice, his wife, really ruled that roost.)
Now, 50 years later, "The Honeymooners" is back, this time on the bigger screen with an all-black quartet. We've got Cedric the Entertainer as Ralph, a New York bus driver who can't resist a get-rich-quick scheme -- the goofier, the more improbable, the better. (Leopard-print velour fanny packs, anyone?) There's the lovely Gabrielle Union as the oft-put-upon Alice (but in these more enlightened times, Ralph no longer threatens to send her straight to the moon with a pow! to the kisser). Then we've got rubber-faced Mike Epps as the plumber Ed Norton, a man who knows his way around a sewer; and the underrated Regina Hall, veteran of the "Scary Movie" franchise, as Ed's acerbic wife, Trixie.
Though Cedric, for all his nimble portliness, is no Gleason, there's plenty of talent to be found here. Too bad it's left to fend for itself against a raging mechanical bull of a script. They mug manically, tap-dancing around one-liners on cue, but never manage to elicit real belly laughs.
The conflict is set up early and predictably: After a sweet courtship, Alice and Ralph have turned into the Bickersons. She's sick of him and his starry-eyed dreaming, not to mention their cramped one-bedroom with a view of the elevated train tracks. Instead, she's itching to merge financial forces with the Nortons to buy a Brooklyn duplex being sold by a sweet old lady, Miss Benvenuti (Anne Pitoniak). The only problem: They've got two weeks to come up with another 10k to meet a $20,000 down payment, and there's an Evil Yuppie developer (Eric Stoltz) determined to beat them to the punch so he can mow down the building to make room for high-end condos. And oh, Ralph has gone and blown the couple's savings on another one of his cockamamie schemes, this time involving a derailed train car and a racing greyhound he found in a dumpster. From there, hilarity is alleged to ensue.
The one bright spot is John Leguizamo in a bit part as Dodge, a street hustler-dog trainer doing what John Leguizamo does. He riffs, he raffs, spitting out one-liners and one of the few laugh-out-loud moments: "I don't want to marry her for her money." Pause. "But I don't know how else to get it."
Alas, it's too little, too late.
Blame it all on the Bad Guys, those Hollywood suits who think by committee and never met a focus group they didn't like. This is product, pure and simple, aimed at the "urban" family market. Directed by John Schultz (of the equally manipulative "Like Mike") and written by a cast of thousands (well, okay, five), "The Honeymooners" is so carefully calculated for the ka-ching! factor that it never takes any risks. It's paint-by-numbers humor. Except the filmmakers didn't bother to paint over the numbers.
The Honeymooners (85 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for innuendo and rude humor including a rather unfortunate bit on flatulence.