Dame Helen Mirren recently lamented a film industry that “continues to worship at the altar of the 18-to-25-year-old male and his penis.” The altar is wider than that, though: There’s plenty of room for the older man who wants to pretend he’s an 18-to-25-year-old male and wields his penis of yore. Those kinds of men-children are the heroes of Seth Rogen’s The Green Hornet update and the clubfooted comedy The Dilemma, which stars Vince Vaughn as a guy who discovers a secret about the wife of his best friend (Kevin James). And on the evidence, the genre in which grown-up buddies wrestle with their masculinity while acting like juveniles is looking mighty limp.
At least The Green Hornet is likable, and a refreshing change from the heavy, angst-ridden superhero pictures so beloved by obnoxious fanboys. The director is Michel Gondry, who proved, in The Science of Sleep, to be a virtuoso at making childish fantasies take wing. And I’m not the first to notice a Bob Hope–Bing Crosby road-movie vibe between the two stars, Rogen as Britt Reid (a.k.a. the Green Hornet) and Jay Chou as the kung fu master Kato — both smitten with Cameron Diaz in the Dorothy Lamour role.
The thrust is Oedipal. Rogen’s Britt is a ne’er-do-well rich kid, son of a disapproving media mogul (Tom Wilkinson) who, in a prologue, suddenly tears the head off his little son’s superhero doll. Later, when the dad drops dead from a bee sting, Britt and Kato (who was his father’s assistant) knock the head off the old man’s graveside statue. That marks the birth of the Green Hornet — the self-styled criminal who fights criminals. Both for P.C. reasons and because Chou is a big star in the all-important Asian market, Kato refuses to be Britt’s sidekick. So he and Rogen trade lame insults while fighting off bad guys, chief among them Christoph Waltz as a Russian mobster. What a difference it makes when Quentin Tarantino isn’t writing your lines.
The Hope-Crosby thing might work better if the quips were fresh and Chou was comfortable with English. He speaks as if he learned it phonetically, and unlike Bruce Lee’s Kato in the old TV show, he talks a lot. His fighting — heavily edited — isn’t especially enlivening, either. Gondry, who often uses sophisticated CGI to create a rough-hewn, handmade look, doesn’t have a way with smash-and-bash car chases. There are a few neat trick shots in which Chou moves at a different speed than his slo-mo adversaries, and a couple of good 3-D effects, like the split screens in which each frame is at a different spatial level. But The Green Hornet doesn’t seem worth the outrageous 3-D-glasses surcharge. In all senses, there’s little that jumps out at you.
But it’s The Dilemma that really lays there. Vaughn’s Ronny and James’s Nick are auto-industry vets looking to score a new contract, and their big idea is practically a metaphor for the inner world of men-children. Explaining to executives that electric cars are “totally gay,” Ronny proposes a responsible, energy-efficient vehicle that makes loud vroom-vroom noises like those cool old Fords and Dodges. (At the risk of sounding “gay,” I don’t think we need more road noise in this world.) The movie turns on their women, though. Longtime bachelor Ronny thinks hard about taking the commitment plunge with his dull girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly), getting his cues from the happy marriage of Nick and Geneva (Winona Ryder). Then, while practicing his proposal at an indoor nursery, he spies Geneva smooching a heavily tattooed Channing Tatum. Should he tell his buddy and shatter him, and maybe ruin the project on which everything in their lives rides? Or should he — for now — keep it a secret? His contortions, moral and physical (lots of spying and tripping over things), occupy the next 90 minutes.
Perhaps the late Blake Edwards could have found a balance between slapstick and psychodrama, but Ron Howard can’t get the pacing right, and Allan Loeb’s script is even wordier than the one he wrote for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Vaughn has a couple of very funny scenes and Winona Ryder a good demonic glint, but the movie cheats like mad: The noisy engine on which so much of the plot hangs isn’t affected one way or another by all the domestic chaos. The Dilemma comes down to whether Ronny can help the cuckolded Nick recover his masculine pride. This is symbolized by a scene in a pro-hockey arena in which, cheered on by his bud, Nick enters a contest to use his big stick to drive a puck into a small black hole. Even Dr. Freud would roll his eyes and tell the filmmakers to grow the hell up.