Herbie: Fully Loaded

"I didn't do anything! It was the car!"

Just a couple of weeks ago, the mainstream critical establishment collectively dumped tanks of excrement on Robert Rodriguez’ The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl 3-D, calling it “ugly,” “messy,” “thrown-together,” “jumbled,” and other such stunningly uninteresting criticisms. It was a flawed film, imperfect and unpolished, no one is disputing that, but it had something that the vast majority of “family films” sorely lack: genuine creativity and sense of play without cynical attempts to sell merchandise and coin catchphrases. It was as personal a film as it was an occasionally ungainly one, full of heart and imagination. It was real, made by human beings for other human beings, not written, shot and edited by committee and focus group. There were problems, sure, but Christ, it was an actual movie. A living, breathing film.

Shark Boy and Lava Girl was independently produced by Rodriguez’ Troublemaker Studios and distributed by Dimension Films, the genre arm of Miramax. I don’t have a budget figure for it, but I imagine $20 million would be a high estimate. Now, some three weeks later, we get Herbie: Fully Loaded, a supposed franchise installment distributed by Disney itself, with all the clout and marketing muscle that accompanies that name. It is a rotten, stupid film, without a hint of cleverness or imagination. Disney will open it on 3,300 movie screens (Shark Boy went out on a still-respectable 2,600) and hype it enough to make a $25 million opening weekend a disappointment.

None of this is remotely surprising; I harbor no outrage about any of it. That’s simply the way it goes in Hollywood. What I am distraught about is the utter insanity and betrayal of the critics, who tore into Rodriguez’ effort but now seem to be giving this exercise in corporate tedium a reluctant pass. Herbie is “perfectly silly” (it’s not), “zippy, brightly-colored fun” (well, it’s brightly colored), and “spirited” (what?).

What we have here is a failure of taste. A genuine and ambitious attempt at greatness has been rejected in favor of something made without an ounce of wit or personality. This is my biggest frustration as a moviegoer: seeing filmmakers shoot high, come up with something unusual and interesting, and then be punished for it. History often vindicates them, and here’s to hoping that Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Shyamalan’s The Village will, before long, be recognized as the wonderful films that they are. But meanwhile, we have to deal with crap like this, and with critics — the supposed mortal enemies of the trite and the moronic — preferring it to movies that actually try.

I have avoided talking about Herbie: Fully Loaded. I had other things on my mind. Anyway, I don’t have very much to say. It’s a movie about a stupid anthropomorphic VW Bug that winks, smiles, gets
antenna boners when it sees a yellow, “female” Bug, and “befriends” a budding racecar driver (Lindsay Lohan) who needs to discover her destiny — meaning, pursue racing instead of moving to New York and, y’know, having a career. The car occasionally exhibits psychotic behavior; I wonder if anyone noticed that Herbie was actually jealous and vindictive as opposed to endearing. Michael Keaton stars as Lohan’s dad, giving him a streak of movies starring creepy-ass objects coming alive in ways that are supposed to be cute, but are anything but.

The movie goes through the motions of the plot in astoundingly perfunctory ways, without a moment’s concern for logic or consistency and an imperturbable tolerance for contrivance. Of course, the ultimate goal is to get Lindsay Lohan and Herbie in the Big Race, and the way this happens is stupid beyond imagination; there’s a plot twist, a few pained scenes between Lohan and Keaton, an absurd reversal (so if a driver qualifies for the race in a car, you can substitute the driver and the car?), and then a plot twist that mysteriously renders everything moot. I would have been more tolerant of this had it led to something fruitful, but the film culminates in what may be the least exciting Big Game/Race/Event ever seen on screen.

Herbie: Fully Loaded represents essentially the worst of everything — Hollywood cinema, family entertainment, Lindsay Lohan movies, American film criticism. You name it. The movie contains none of the things I value — humor, play, fun, wit, intelligence, creativity, self-awareness, excitement, character, or anything else. The good news: there’s a chance that, in a theater next door (certainly a much smaller one), is playing a much better film, a real effort to entertain, enlighten and delight. Lava Boy and Shark Girl is not a great film either, but it’s something. Herbie is nothing.

-- Eugene Novikov

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