If someone had told you back in the summer of 1995 that Martin Lawrence would one day star in light, G-rated family comedies, you’d have snorted and walked away. In those days, Lawrence was one of Hollywood’s hottest action stars, fresh from his role in the definitely not G-rated “Bad Boys.” But his action persona has aged very poorly, and Lawrence has recently been reduced to a bevy of uninspired, sloppy slapsticks. All that history makes the following statement downright stunning: Lawrence’s latest family comedy, “College Road Trip,” is actually a decent movie.

Lawrence stars as James Porter, a Chicago-area police chief whose daughter is about to go off to college. Overprotective of his daughter, as he is of everything else, James wants her to go to nearby Northwestern University, but little Melanie (Raven-Symoné, TV’s “That’s So Raven”) has her sights set on Georgetown University. James agrees to drive Melanie to her admission interview at Georgetown, fully intending to brainwash her along the way. But strange things happen when the loving movie father gets in a car with his perfect movie daughter – laughs, tears, lessons and morals – on both sides of the screen.

As predictable as “College Road Trip” is in purpose and execution, it somehow works. Nothing this stock should be so charming, but the film finds a way to engage and, occasionally, surprise its audience. Having a good heart is one thing – even the worst family movies have that. This film, however, has feelings – as weird as that sounds. Rarely do films of this genre back up their warm and fuzzy intentions with perceptive, touching plotlines or characters. Touching would be an overstatement here, but at least the characters and situations in this film ring true.

One of the film’s biggest accomplishments may be that it bottles up the neurotic tendencies of Lawrence’s usual screen persona. Though his loudness and ability to talk really fast while saying nothing in particular has served Lawrence well in action comedies like “Bad Boys” and “Blue Streak,” they’re oddly out of place in the genre he has recently migrated to. In this film, Lawrence is flamboyant but not explosive, allowing the rest of the players to fill their roles in the story.

The result is not only a calmer, more coherent narrative, but also an unexpectedly deeper character for Lawrence. When we see him eagerly donning the colors and logo of colleges he tours with his daughter he’s easy to identify and sympathize with. He represents the entire batch of nervous parents that emerges every year around this time, not just a psychotic exception. Doing that while still being at least a little funny is a remarkable feat.

All this praise for “College Road Trip” must be qualified by stating that the film is hardly great. It is amusing and laudable less for its own merits and more as a testament to how dry and desperate the family comedy genre is these days. Slightly overacted and stumbling over just about every cliché imaginable, the film is little better than a pleasant couple of hours for people of all ages. But that in itself is above and beyond everything we could possibly expect.

College Road Trip

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

At Quality 16 and Showcase

Walt Disney

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