BORN TO BE MILD
(1/2 out of 4 stars)
DIRECTED BY WALT BECKER
STARRING: TIM ALLEN, MARTIN LAWRENCE,
WILLIAM H. MACY, JOHN TRAVOLTA,
MARISA TOMEI, RAY LIOTTA
99 MINUTES, RATED PG-13
If you have gone to the movies with even the slightest modicum of regularity in the last few months, you have probably seen the trailer for Wild Hogs and dismissed it as little more than a knock-off of the perfectly serviceable middle-aged-ennui comedy City Slickers, with the chief difference being that the cast is straddling motorcycles instead of horses.
If this was all that there was to say about the film, I would have been perfectly content to simply leave it at that and go on to a more pressing and interesting topic—the cancellation of The O.C. or what Penelope Cruz was wearing at the Oscars. Sadly, I fear I must elaborate, because this film is of an awfulness that the previews only begin to hint at—it fails to even live up to the not-exactly-exalted comedic standards of City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold. In fact, I’m not sure I should deface the word “comedy” by suggesting that this film belongs in the genre—this is a film that does for comedy what Gary Busey did for motorcycle safety.
In a year that has already seen more than its share of comic misfires (Epic Movie, Because I Said So, Norbit, and Reno 911!: Miami), there is a strong chance that Hogs could be the worst of the lot. While those films were all fundamentally flawed at the conceptual level, this one takes what could have been an entertaining premise and some likable performers, then squanders them on a deeply offensive and deeply unfunny comedic dead zone from which no one, on screen or in the audience, emerges unscathed.
The film starts off by introducing us to our four central characters and the mid-life crises in which they currently find themselves embroiled. Doug (Tim Allen) is a dentist bored by his job, annoyed by his dietary restrictions, and upset that his kid would rather play video games or hang out with other kids instead of shooting hoops out back. Dudley (William H. Macy) is a nerdy klutz whose inability to find a woman might have something to do with the fact that his every comment and gesture seems to be made solely to convince people that he is gay. Bobby (Martin Lawrence) is a struggling self-help author with a shrill and overbearing wife, obnoxious kids, and a day job as a janitor. Finally, there is Woody (John Travolta), whose status as the alpha male of the group is threatened by the fact that (unknown to the others) he has lost both his fortune and his smoking-hot swimsuit model wife (the latter presumably because she has finally realized that smoking-hot swimsuit models don’t live in the suburbs of Cincinnati).
In an effort to get out of their collective ruts, the guys decide to break out the motorcycles that they tool around town on during the weekends and set out on a road trip to the West Coast. Since the guys apparently realize that they are actually characters in a by-the-numbers road trip comedy, they kick things off by doing the kind of schtick only found in by-the-numbers road trip comedies—they burn up their tent and later have their skinny-dipping interrupted by a family who insists on jumping into the same remote swimming hole as four naked middle-aged men.
Things are inadvertently kicked up a notch when they happen upon a biker bar and enrage Jack (Ray Liotta), the leader of the gang-in-residence—first by the poseurs’ mere presence, and later when Woody, who returns to the bar for a confrontation, accidentally blows up the place. The four wind up taking refuge in a bucolic small town teeming with chili festivals, bumbling cops, and a comely waitress (Marisa Tomei) who catches the eye of Dudley. Before long, Jack gets wind of where they are hanging out, and his gang begins to lay siege (as much as a PG-13 rating will allow) in an effort to smoke the guys out so that he can pound the stuffing out of them.
As I noted earlier, Wild Hogs looks and sounds of nothing more than a brutally mediocre film over which even the most hot-tempered of individuals might have a hard time getting too worked-up. However, if you look at it for more than a few minutes, you will begin to realize just how appalling the film really is. For starters, the film simply isn’t funny at all—every joke is pitched at the level of an especially primitive sitcom, there is not a single scene that demonstrates even the rudiments of comedic timing, and the characters are so unlikable and self-absorbed that most people will find themselves rooting for the real biker gang to go Altamont on their collective hinders.
More disturbing is the fact that the film is borderline homophobic in the way that, at every turn, it tries to shoehorn in jokes about how weird and wacky gay people are. Mind you, I’m not saying that one can’t possibly mine such material for humor—recall the immortal “Those aren’t pillows!” bit from Planes, Trains & Automobiles. What makes the jokes so offensive here is that: A) They simply aren’t funny (they are on such a ham-fisted sitcom level that you keep waiting for Mr. Roper to make an appearance) and B) We are evidently supposed to be laughing at the characters who are supposed to be acting “gay” instead of the overreactions to what they are doing.
What is especially befuddling is that the clueless and clunky screenplay was written by Brad Copeland, a TV writer whose credits include several episodes of Arrested Development — the single funniest and most inventive sitcom of the decade—as well as some installments of the amusing My Name is Earl. How to explain the gulf between those teleplays and what he has offered up here? Maybe he only plays well in someone else’s sandbox.
Another crippling flaw is the fact that, for a film that seems to be celebrating male bonding and the importance of friendship, you never believe for a second that these four guys ever even met before the cameras started rolling. Of them, the only one who is close to being even remotely likable or sympathetic is Macy, but the mere sight of this great actor reduced to falling off of motorcycles or struggling to shut off a computer that seems to automatically log into payment-optional porn sites is almost too depressing to contemplate (especially when you realize that more people will probably see this performance in its opening afternoon than witness his extraordinary work in last year’s Edmond during its entire run).
As for Allen, Lawrence, and Travolta, it doesn’t hurt quite as much to see them making asses of themselves because, quite frankly, their collective track records are sketchy enough that this film isn’t as dramatic of a plunge. That said, Allen and Lawrence, two performers both used to being the top dog in their own star vehicles as opposed to ensemble pieces, are so bored and listless when the focus isn’t on them that they all but go limp while waiting for the others to stop talking. Travolta, on the other hand, puts a little more energy into the proceedings, but his character is so completely obnoxious throughout that you may find yourself wishing that he hadn’t.
Wild Hogs is a dreadful film—not only is it director Walt Becker’s first effort since Van Wilder, it is actually a step backward in terms of quality—but I will admit that there were a couple of minor elements that weren’t completely excruciating. As the bumbling small-town sheriff, Steven Tobolowsky has a couple of amusing lines, the best being the one in which he explains the extent of his weapons training. Although Marisa Tomei has virtually nothing to do here, she is nevertheless cheerful and perky and clearly becoming more and more attractive with every passing year.
I also kind of dug Ray Liotta as the choked-with-rage biker looking to destroy everyone else in the film, mostly because it feels less of a performance and more of documentary footage of Liotta going psycho upon the realization that he signed on for a project that could well be the low point of a career that has already seen him acting opposite the likes of an elephant, several second-tier Muppets, and Pia Zadora. As the only two people in Wild Hogs with even vague glimmers of personality, I kept hoping that Liotta and Tomei would ride off into the sunset instead of sticking around for the end of this cinematic equivalent of road rash.