Wild Hogs

(2007)  1/2 Pg-13
99 min. Touchstone Pictures. Director: Walt Becker. Cast: John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy, Tichina Arnold.

A hideous embarrassment with an overbearing soundtrack, terrible pacing and humor that's offensive to a wide variety of sensibilities, Wild Hogs earns half a star because I'm a sucker for Ray Liotta's crazy shtick. Also, director Walt Becker shows a smidgen of sweet mercy by not cranking up "Born to Be Wild" for his comedy of two midlife-crisis guys, a whipped husband, and a computer geek taking to the open road. Instead, survey says..."Slow Ride" by Foghat. If you listen closely, you can hear your brain cells fizzling.

The four amigos here are Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence, and William H. Macy. Allen and Lawrence play flustered family man who bemoan their lack of power and control in their family units (Lawrence demands of his daughter, "You want to look like a hooker?"), and Travolta's a businessman who wants to trade in his cell-phone-fueled stress. As for Macy, he's long been discussed as the ideal Ned Flanders should The Simpsons go live-action. Apparently tired of waiting, Macy plays a Flanders knock-off, who can cheerily look a psycho biker in the face and chirp, "Yep-a-rooni! That's our gang!"

Star power always brings something to a film, even if it's the urge to rubberneck at the actors' discomfort. The stars do seem ill at ease, never gelling as an ensemble and obviously encouraged by Becker to play to the back row. Macy fares the best, sweetly clueless about his old fashion and nerdy demeanor, and sweetly innocent while romancing Marisa Tomei. An overacting Travolta also manages a few funny line readings, but even a flailing dervish will eventually get a few through the hoop. (Liotta definitively gets the audience on his side when he sizes up the leads as "suburban assholes.")

The cast is understandably disoriented by the film's tonal tightrope, stretched between "family comedy" and raunch. The common denominator is immaturity, with the lost boys discovering how much they need their freedom, wives be damned. Kids are present for a few moments of domestic comedy and melodrama, but mostly the film concerns itself with middle-aged men. That they are the butts of jokes about being out of touch and thick in the midsection won't resonate with kids, but may make them point and laugh with derision (also lost on kids: allusions like Travolta's exhortation "C'mon, guys...St. Elmo's Fire! The Wild Bunch! Deliverance!").

There's slapstick by the pound and, most disturbingly, a persistent theme of homosexual panic that's sadly in step with playground attitudes. Speaking of playgrounds, Allen's character actually tells Liotta's meanie biker (a "Del Fuego," since the Hell's Angels sued), "We're not the posers—you're the posers." I guess "Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah" was a little too on the nose. Some of the gags are ludicrously engineered. Macy has a voice-activated computer, so he can say, "I need to research some alternative specs" in a coffee shop, only for the computer to loudly reply, "Research alternative sex" and launch nasty porn.

As for the gay jokes, they reflect the generally crass and tired humor of the whole enterprise. Here's John C. McGinley as a flamboyantly gay motorcycle cop; there's Kyle Gass as a fey fairground singer wailing "Don'Cha." And the screenwriters take every opportunity to discomfit the guys with homoerotic bonding, whether it's huddling to sleep in the cold night or skinny dipping. What's the deal with this shrill, squeamish, obsessive line of humor? Perhaps to make the shots to the crotch seem more classy.

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