Herbie: Fully Loaded (review)

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Slug Bug, Beige and Striped

Ever see one of those movies where you’re moaning “crap… crap… crap… crap” through the first two-thirds and then it starts gripping you in the end so that you by the time it’s over, you’re thinking it’s not so awful after all? Herbie: Fully Loaded is like that. Now, I’m not sayin’ it’s any threat to Madagascar or anything as something both the kiddies and the ‘rents will enjoy. But it’s not bad. It’s not good, but it’s not bad.
Anyone with fond memories of the very silly Herbie movies of the 1970s might despair — I have those memories, too, though I readily admit that they have surely been filtered through glasses colored by childhood rosiness. But I have to admit that, simplistic as it all is, I was forced to embrace the girl-power message that Fully Loaded ends up sending, because it ain’t about traveling pants or ya-ya sisterhoods or anything so wishy-washily girly and limiting and small, like it’s asking girls to learn how to accept their natural lot in life as irrational birdbrains — it’s about a gal doing something cool and aggressive and daring to be the best of everyone, male and female. I can get behind that, even if it takes forever for the movie to get there.

See, ya gots your Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan: Freaky Friday), a spunky chick and daughter of a legendary racing family whose dad, the sweetly sad and griefstricken widower Ray (Michael Keaton: White Noise, Jack Frost), won’t have any little girl of his out there on the NASCAR racetrack. And she meets a 1963 Volkwagen Beetle with a mind of its own, which is nowhere near to bursting with personality as I seem to remember Herbie being, but oh well. The car likes Maggie and ends up pushing her to race with NASCAR champ Trip Murphy — Matt Dillon (Crash, One Night at McCool’s), as Murphy, is pretty much the only one who gets how damn goofy this is supposed to be; in its foot-dragging first two-thirds, the movie only ever comes alive when Dillon is onscreen, reveling in his kiddie-movie villain-ness.

There’s a timidity to this new Herbie that’s so disappointing, because you sense that if director Angela Robinson or any of the eighteen million members of the screenwriting committee had had any ball bearings, this could have been actually interesting. But no one in front of the camera or behind it is able to genuinely embrace the magic in the idea of a car with its own sense of destiny, with a sense of its own greatness and spirit. For a movie about a car that’s alive, there’s a lot that’s dead here — I wanted to see more cars personified, for instance, and more characters getting caught up in the nuttiness of it all. There’s a kind of made-for-TV smallness to the flick, like some guy in a suit said, Hey, this is just gonna go straight to DVD anyway, and kids got no sense of discrimination anyway, so let’s just do it all on the cheap. Except… well, it doesn’t cost anything for people to be excited about what they’re doing, and apart for Dillon, no one here seems to be having any fun. One little girl I overheard after my screening — gosh, she couldn’t have been more than three years old — told her mom that she wanted to be in this movie. I guess it might have been nice to feel like the cast felt the same way. And then I might have felt that way, too. I love cars, and I love driving. I’d love a Herbie. In theory, at least. Mostly I wanted to scream as Fully Loaded unspooled.

And then events conspire to bring Maggie to a major NASCAR event where she’s racing Herbie against Jeff Gordon (who’s got a cameo, natch) and Trip Murphy and all the souped-up NASCAR cars, and I got caught up in this little girl’s givin’ it her all in a major event in which women aren’t supposed to be able to measure up. Except… it’s not just her, is it? The car, Herbie, is the secret to her success — she may not be much of a driver without it. Him. Whatever.

Now I’m depressed. Can a girl only drive behind the wheel of a car that does all the tricks for her? I can’t believe I’m giving this much thought to Lindsay Lohan and a junkyard Beetle.

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