The Green Hornet (Sony Pictures), director Michel Gondry's first foray into mainstream action filmmaking, presents a good test case for the auteur theory. Though he's made only one truly great film so far, the 2004 sci-fi-fantasy/romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry is nothing if not an "author," a filmmaker possessed of an unmistakable personal style.
His two subsequent movies, The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind, were slighter and spottier than Eternal Sunshine.(Suggesting that Gondry may be at his best when paired with the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who also scripted his nuttily endearing debut feature Human Nature.) But all Gondry's films (not to mention his many remarkable music videos) share a strong sense of visual whimsy and an interest in the spectacle of people at play. His protagonists are children trapped in adult bodies, sometimes literally (as when Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine finds himself a baby again, being bathed in the sink by his mother) and always figuratively. In The Science of Sleep, Gael Garcia Bernal slept on spaceship sheets and struggled to exit his fantasy world long enough to connect with his entrancing new neighbor, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. And Be Kind Rewind's buddy heroes (Jack Black and Mos Def) gleefully and incompetently re-created Hollywood blockbusters using only an old VHS camera.
That was quite a long and pensive windup for a 3-D movie about two masked dudes fighting crime in a tricked-out Imperial Crown. * But as a Gondry fan, I found it impossible to sit through The Green Hornet without trying to discern the Gondry touches amid the conventional action-movie hardware. And those touches did appear, at times—in the playful early scenes between the two self-invented crimestoppers, or an action montage niftily choreographed across multiple split screens, or the recurrent motif of drifting deep-red roses. But sadly, these small bursts of beauty seemed so at odds with the movie's general crushing mediocrity that they were like quickly squelched protests against it. There's a sense, watching The Green Hornet, that the movie really wants to be something other than a dumb big 3-D superhero movie, but for whatever reason: market pressure, writerly indiscipline, lack of imagination?—it just can't. Is Gondry trying to blink us out a message?
The Green Hornet adapts a character from a 1930s radio serial, via a '60s TV show that costarred Bruce Lee. But the period it feels most indebted to is the '80s: big, rollicking, tongue-in-cheek blockbusters like Lethal Weapon and Ghostbusters, the kind of films the Be Kind Rewind boys were interested in remaking. Britt Reid (Seth Rogen, who also co-wrote the script) is a callow playboy, the absurdly rich son of a newspaper magnate (Tom Wilkinson) who dies mysteriously of a lethal bee sting. Britt, far too lazy and dumb to run a newspaper, instead begins killing time with Kato (the Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou), his late father's mechanic and designated cappuccino-maker.
As they discover their shared love of customized vehicles, sleeping-gas-dispersing guns, and general cool superhero stuff, Britt and Kato make a pact to cruise Los Angeles at night, pretending to be bad guys while secretly attempting to bust up the crime ring of gang lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz in a role that's a pale shadow of his suave supervillain in Inglourious Basterds). Eventually Britt's hypercompetent assistant at the daily paper, Lenore (Cameron Diaz), intervenes to help the boys rough out some basics of criminal psychology. But Kato and Britt have some power issues to work through—not least that the only one of them who has any real engineering or crime-fighting acumen (Kato) is the hired servant of the other (Britt). This profoundly inequitable relationship leads to fistfights and fallings-out and intense rivalry for Lenore's affections—despite the fact that she's demonstrably uninterested in either one of them.
Is Gondry aware that he's making a film about both white male privilege and sexual harassment in the workplace? At moments, he seems to be. Kato and Britt discuss their master-servant dynamic—and less explicitly, the racial difference that underlies it—in several scenes, but the fundamental injustice of their partnership is never satisfactorily addressed. And Britt treats Lenore with a leering disrespect that, in real life, would be legally actionable. In the end, The Green Hornet, scripted by Seth Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg (who also collaborated on Superbad and Pineapple Express) is too fragmented and self-indulgent to be about anything at all, or indeed even to offer much fun.
Seth Rogen must be a master at creating a Rat Pack-like atmosphere of dudely camaraderie on set, because in movie after movie he's given a huge amount of creative control. While he and Goldberg have proven their gift for writing amiable guy-on-guy repartee, they haven't yet been challenged to structure a story, and The Green Hornet doesn't suggest they're about to start challenging themselves. This movieis about a pampered, arrogant young man who rushes to don a crusader mask he's nowhere near ready to fill. Rogen—who's far from untalented, both as an actor and a writer—should take care that the film's story doesn't become his autobiography.
Correction, Jan. 19, 2011: This review originally misidentified the make of car that was used in the movie. (Return to the corrected sentence.)