Review: ‘The Green Hornet’

The costume is a hat and a mask. Columbia Pictures
The costume is a hat and a mask. Columbia Pictures

1. There are four entertaining moments in "The Green Hornet," a film that runs 110 minutes. (I counted them. There are four.) All four of them come to us from director Michel Gondry, the man behind the visual feast of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and seemingly the strangest person on earth to direct a big-budget 3-D movie about a '40s radio show hero with no powers, no skills and no discernible reason for being. Actually, that's not quite true: Gondry might be the perfect guy to direct a movie about a non-superhero of that type. You don't hire Michel Gondry to make a traditional superhero movie. Pushing him to be something that he isn't -- essentially, a dull professional who ploddingly gets the job done -- is pointless and counterproductive. So why did he do this movie? The question hangs there, baffling. There are those four scenes. The rest of the movie looks like it was directed by someone else. I have a strong suspicion that it was.

2. The choice of Seth Rogen to play a superhero is one that makes sense only in a universe where that superhero movie is directed by Michel Gondry, which is why he works in only four scenes. Rogen plays Britt Reid, a pampered millionaire who inherits a newspaper empire when his father (Tom Wilkinson) is killed. (This movie is more optimistic about the wealth one garners from owning a newspaper than would have seemed prudent even in the 1940s.) Reid, for reasons the film never bothers to explain, decides to become the Green Hornet, bringing in his father's assistant Kato (Jay Chao) as a sidekick because he knows the basics of crimefighting, which involve kicking, cars with guns in every orifice and maskmaking. There is a joke here, a smart one even, in which the playboy takes all the credit for the work done by his "help," but it's one the movie lacks either the interest or the energy to look into. The dynamic between the two is limp and plodding, probably because, well, Chao doesn't speak English very well. This is death for Rogen, an actor who requires a presence he can react to and bounce off of. The joke of a man like Rogen -- who, for all his workout regiments and weight loss, still looks oafish and stupid in a mask, hopefully by design -- being a superhero is one the movie doesn't slow down enough to analyze. He is simply a rich kid who likes pretending to be a superhero, poorly. So many great jokes there. The movie takes advantage of none of them. It is an audacious, potentially fascinating decision to cast Seth Rogen as a caped crusader. But the movie has no idea if it's a spoof, or a straight actioner, or deconstruction. So it just lurches awkwardly from scene to scene, confused, confusing. This might be what happens when someone recuts your movie.

3.The plot, such as it is, involves Reid and Kato pretending to be villains to they can bring down the bad guys, whoever they are. (The duo shows little interest; they basically show up at various seedy spots in town and start punching people.) There's a big bad guy played by Christoph Waltz in a performance that is a series of neurotic tics intended as a shorthand for menace, James Franco has a funny cameo to start the film (one of the four good scenes). The reason that scene works is because it's one of the few that slows down to let its people breathe and talk and do things; the rest of the film, they're rushing from one paint-by-numbers action scene after another. The film's core whimsical spirit -- the reason it exists in the first place, at least in this incarnation -- pops up every once in a while, like an puppy hopping in the air to get a peek over the fence that pens it in. And then it's stomped out, popping up again a few minutes later, just to be stomped down again. The film's bewilderment about what kind of movie it is -- like two movies awkwardly spliced together -- makes it the first plot in memory that's difficult to stay on top of even though there's not really any plot at all.

4. There has to be an extended version of this somewhere, right? One where Gondry's touches aren't hidden under four layers of thick wool. One that was initially panned at test screenings for being something different and weirder than your usual superhero movie. One that felt like it was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and directed by Michel Gondry. One that didn't bewilder everyone who was initially so excited about it. One that had even the slightest idea what Cameron Diaz was doing here. (She's in this movie, I think. I have a vague memory of her dropping by 45 minutes in, and then at the end.) One that didn't have "Clash of the Titans"-esque empty, pointless 3-D. One that didn't make you pretty certain that Gondry is going to do an interview in the next six month confessing that the movie was taken away from him in post-production but he denied it to be a team player. One that has some idea what kind of movie it wants to be. I bet that movie isn't great. But I bet it at least makes sense. Or at least is surreal, and self-aware enough to not pretend that this isn't all ridiculous. One that doesn't feel like its director disappeared for stretches at a time.

5. When Gondry was initially signed on for "Hornet," a story came out about Rogen's initial attempts to sell the studio on Gondry as director. Rogen told him, "You have to convince them they're not gonna show up on set one day and everything is gonna be made out of cardboard," referencing some of the sets of the overrated but still lush Gondry film "The Science Of Sleep." But this is what Gondry does. This is what you hire him to do. You know what? This movie would a helluva lot better with paper mache sets.

Grade: C-.