It's not easy being Green
Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet has taken such a pummeling from critics I was ready to take a raincoat to the theaters, in anticipation of the deluge of garbage I'd been warned will descend on me from the movie screen. Brought rubber boots and an umbrella too, just in case; hunched down in my seat, and waited for the abuse to begin; and waited, and waited. And waited.
Mind you, the movie is not as prodigiously beautiful as Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik! or as hydrochlorically caustic as Tim Burton's Batman Returns or as waywardly lyrical as Robert Altman's Popeye; this was not some titanically idiosyncratic artist taking a popular genre and transmuting it with his inimitable storytelling style into a popular work of art that is fabulous and supple and unique, sometimes all three at once. Call it a well-meaning project that went horribly wrong, then somehow, some way, went right, in a horrible way (Mary Shelley's classic novel still has currency, especially in the hothouse climate of modern-day Hollywood).
Gondry has a definite style, but as shown in his previous work he needs an intellectually rigorous and equally imaginative writer to inspire him--Charles Kaufman, basically. His Human Nature (which Kaufman wrote)--about emotionally unstable scientists struggling to tame and train a human being raised as an ape--was disturbing and funny and sad; his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (also written by Kaufman)--about a woman who decides to artificially wipe all her memories of her true love--is all that taken to a more deliriously surreal level (the film, incidentally, is one of many examples that demonstrate one does not have to completely depend on logic or linear causality to create a thriller sequence). Left to his own devices (and script), he's capable of a Science of Sleep, where the imagery is gently dreamlike but the picture itself seems ready to blow away with the wind (the movie lacks Kaufman's ability to take an outlandish proposition (man raised as an ape, memories erased as if on magnetic tape) and weigh said proposition down with his endless thoughts on life, art, women).
Easy to say the worst thing ever to happen to this long-troubled project (it started out as a George Clooney vehicle) is Seth Rogen. Rogen comes with his own emotional and thematic baggage, a self-conscious slacker steeped in the pop culture of the '90s and determined to feed his own man-child sense of self-importance--if he's successful, I'd say that's because he mirrors every ambitious slacker's dream to make a hit comedy about his libidinous search for sex and approval. A Rogen project, now that he's a successful writer-producer-star, is a project all about Rogen, and the actor was apparently determined to shape Gondry's production to his own specifications. Director and star seem headed for a showdown, a clash of sensibilities--if not in real life, then on the big screen.
Only the results aren't that bad. Gondry loves throwing us odd moments, unexpected images, narrative detours; Rogen likes to improvise, deviate from script, deliver the unexpected. Rogen is particularly steeped in superhero lore, especially superhero movie lore; he loves taking what we expect and love from the Batman, Superman, Spider-man and what-not, pile it all up high, pour gasoline over the untidy heap, and toss a lit match in. Gondry photographs the unholy mess in a relatively straightforward if lustrous manner, save for the occasional baroque flourish--a sequence, for example, where word is sent out that there is a million-dollar prize on the Hornet's head. A woman tells another, the screen splits accordingly; the two tell two others, the number of screens double into four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four; so on and so forth in one apparent take, 'ad delirium.'
That's Gondry's contribution; Rogen's is to imagine every wise-ass question everyone asked of the TV show and answer them as thoroughly as possible. Hence: "Why if Kato's smarter and more kick-ass than the Hornet doesn't he try and take over?" Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou) not only tries to take over operations, he goes for Lenore (Cameron Diaz), the Hornet's rather expendable love interest (think of Robin trying to date Catwoman, or of Jimmy Olsen making time with Lois Lane behind Superman's back).
Chou has a nice physicality (aided not a little by judicious editing and the odd camera angle). If the movie has a flaw, Chou might be it--he's a pretty face and all, but his chemistry with Rogen is strictly limited, he being strictly eye candy (I'd loved to have seen what original choice Stephen Chow might have done with the role). Christoph Waltz, so memorable in Inglourious Basterds (in my opinion the only one there, alas) does better as the neurotic Chudnofsky, who worries about his suit and hair and wonders (in a funny scene with an uncredited James Franco) if he's frightening enough.
This is basically Rogen's party, though, and for once I'm with him. Knocked Up was a Rogen fantasy about impregnating a hot babe; Superbad was basically a Rogen fantasy about teenage friendship--too much Rogen-ish self-regard for my taste, overall. Here Rogen is confronted with a mythology and protagonist already fully formed and, almost petulantly, proceeds to pick him apart. It asks the single most pointed question in the movie--"what good is the Hornet anyway?"--and his answer is both logical and at the same time perversely true to the formula of the original series (a hint: Rogen makes a cogent case for the idea that the Hornet is the Inspector Clouseau of superheroes).
So--Gondry and Rogen actually making a visually and conceptually interesting movie? I think so. Am I nuts? You decide. Me, I'll just sit back, relax, watch the Hornet and Kato kick the living crap out of each other. Beats, I'm betting, having to endure the onanistic solemnity of Christopher Nolan's newest Batman movie.
First published in Businessworld, 1.20.11