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Car Trouble

Herbie the Love Bug is back, and he bites

Anyone who would insist that movie reviewing is not a real job ("'Sup, Mom?") hasn't been forced to sit through screenings of Bewitchedand Herbie: Fully Loadedin the span of five days -- and by forced, I mean either you see both movies, write 800 words about each, or else you don't collect your paycheck, which is a pretty fair definition of "forced." These stupefyingly awful offerings are, though, but par for the course this miserable year. After each screening, it seems, a few colleagues will huddle outside the theater to argue about whether this was, in fact, the worst Hollywood release of the year and not, oh, White Noiseor Be Coolor Miss Congeniality 2or The Longest Yardor Saharaor Jiminy Glick in Lalawood. It's not even July yet, and already a palpable, overwhelming sense of dread has set in: This will be the worst summer yet. No wonder the studios are fretting over plummeting profits and dwindling audiences. They need not blame piracy or DVD rentals, but their own anemic, anorexic product, which saunters into the theater a prince and gets booted out two weeks later a pauper, as it should be.

To damn Herbie: Fully Loadedas soporific crap, as lazy profiteering, as yet another needless and cynical remake in a season populated by such con artists, would be as pointless as the movie itself. If you at all had hope for it, you're either a Walt Disney executive or Gordon Buford, author of the story Car-Boy-Girlthat birthed five prior features, including 1969's The Love Bugand the 1997 made-for-TV redo with Bruce Campbell in the Dean Jones role, and a short-lived TV series. The rest of the world waited for another Love Bug movie as much as it anticipates one more Charlie Chan offering and perhaps yet another Facts of Lifereunion movie.

The plot provides the slightest, most imperceptible variation on its predecessors: Herbie, once more lifted off the scrap heap, winds up in the hands of a race-car driver (Lindsay Lohan, before she dyed her hair unnaturally blond and dieted her physique nauseatingly skeletal) in need of a miracle machine that can save the family business and her would-be career. Lohan, as Maggie Peyton, comes from a long line of racing greats, including the father (played by Batman Michael Keaton, groan) who won't let his little girl in the cockpit. Instead, he's pushing her off to New York, where she's set to begin a career at ESPN -- owned, of course, by Disney, in but one of myriad examples of product placement in a movie that's more like a 92-minute advertisement for everything ever made, bought or sold.

But Maggie's li'l Love Bug, and love interest Justin Long, see to it that Maggie beats all comers, including NASCAR hot shot Trip Murphy (Drugstore Cowboy Matt Dillon, groan again) and, eventually, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett. This, however, comes after what can only be described as the most inexplicable plot twist ever to appear in a Disney movie: Herbie's suicide attempt, which involves his throwing a race, winding up in the possession of Trip and getting tossed into a demolition derby where he does nothing to fend off his inevitable doom until Maggie shows up at the last second to rescue his German-manufactured ass. Apparently, parents at test screenings were livid over Lohan's low-cut tops and generous cleavage, prompting Disney to digitally alter her wardrobe and bust, but had no problem with a plot point that involved a sentient being, or whatever, trying to off itself. I believe it was Don Knotts in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlowho put it best, when he asked of Xavier Saint-Macary, "What the fuck is wrong with people, anyway?"

One could look at the roster of talent and ask the same question. Once more, after The Pacifier and Taxi, screenwriters Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon lose a little more of that goodwill engendered by the fact they created and star in Reno 911!; given their involvement with three movies containing no laughs between them, I am beginning to remember why I thought their sketch-comedy show The Statewas so miserable so long ago. (Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, responsible for the respectable Smallvilleand the reprehensible Showtime, also share credit. Why, I have no idea.) Dillon, seen just weeks ago in the remarkable Crash, doesn't even try to hide the fact he's here to pick up a briefcase of cash (it's doubtful Disney even bothered cutting the check); he hasn't done this little acting on-screen since the Madonna "Bad Girl" video. As for Lohan, this is her third Disney remake and the worst of the trio -- the Saturday-morning hangover after a Freaky Friday.

Keaton's involvement is more of a mystery, right up there with the pyramids and the fact there are people who willingly eat tongue sandwiches. His has been a career in remission for years, since long before he played a talking snowman in the abominable Jack Frost; White Noise, released at the beginning of the year, was but the tip of the iceberg that sank his Titanic. He does have an extraordinary performance in a respectable new film, Michael Hoffman's Game 6, but that Sundance charmer has yet to find a distributor. So instead we get Keaton as Lohan's father in a role slightly between that of cameo and "special guest." No wonder every time he shows up he looks like he's been hit by not a Volkswagen but a Peterbilt.

 
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