First of all, Herbie: Fully Loaded gets points just for not being The Perfect Man (Hilary Duff’s new flick). And beyond that, the movie just isn’t bad. It may not be in the same happy-surprise league as the Lindsay Lohan/Jamie Lee Curtis remake of Freaky Friday, but it is a pretty pleasant diversion, albeit one that’s marred by too many CGI effects on Herbie and — from my perspective anyway — too much NASCAR worship.
Even though I share a hometown with the legendary Dale Earnhardt, I simply don’t “get” stock-car racing. Watching a bunch of ugly, souped-up cars (festooned with more advertisements than you can shake a contract at) drive around in a circle for 400 or so miles is not my idea of a good time. Fortunately, Herbie doesn’t spend all that much of its time at the racetrack; still, there’s enough advertising splashed across nearly every frame of the film to shame the cars.
The film itself is a fairly agreeable confection, and dashes of feminism and Lohan’s appealing screen presence make it work, even when it gets silly or slapdash.
The screenplay kind of wanders back and forth between being merely workable and not making very good sense. You might rightly wonder whether or not a screenplay about a 1963 Volkswagen with human (and superhuman) characteristics is required to make sense, but when it starts off with a montage of Herbie’s earlier triumphs — complete with newspaper headlines — it’s hard not to wonder why no one recalls his glory days when he reappears on the racetrack.
Otherwise, the story is OK, but no great shakes, and it’s awfully similar to the one in Racing Stripes. Lohan plays Maggie Peyton, daughter of one-time NASCAR great Ray Peyton (Micheal Keaton). Even though she’s just graduated college, Maggie has the urge to race, something her father won’t allow, because she’s the “image” of her late mother and he can’t face the idea of “losing her again.”
However, he’s given her Herbie, which he purchased from a junkyard for $75, as a graduation present — and Herbie’s got racing ideas of his own. In fact, the car gets Maggie involved in a street race with NASCAR superstar Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), whom they easily defeat. With the help and encouragement of her old racing pal, Kevin (Justin Long, Jeepers Creepers), she ends up deceiving her father and racing anyway.
A lot of predictable and somewhat silly complications occur while Maggie learns the value of friendship in the process of losing Herbie to Murphy, who attempts to send the car to its “death” in a demolition derby. (The sequence is peculiarly patterned on the robot-gladiator scene in Spielberg’s A.I..) Then dad has to learn a thing or two when Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer, Kate and Leopold) can’t race and … well, you can guess the rest.
No less than five writers are credited on the film. Two of them — Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant — are responsible for The Pacifier and Taxi, but we won’t hold that against them. Two others — Alfred Gough and Miles Millar — are a little more respectable, having Shanghai Knights and Shanghai Noon on their resumes. A fifth writer — Mark Perez — came up with the lame story line, which is the kind of work you’d expect from the author of The Country Bears.
So it’s not the script that makes the film work as well as it does. It’s the agreeable tone, the performances and Angela Robinson’s direction that pulls it together. Lohan gets excellent support from the rest of the cast. Justin Long — who had the thankless role of the guy Brittany Spears didn’t lose her virginity to in Crossroads — makes for a nice, believable romantic interest for Lohan. What’s refreshing here is that Long is more in the sweet, lovably geeky mold, as opposed to the hot-guy mold (remember the “hunky Zamboni driver” in Ice Princess?). This quality gives their relationship a sense of depth, which is usually lacking in this kind of movie. He may still not score by the end of the film, but it’s definitely a step up (and it undoubtedly beats having his eyes eaten by the monster in Jeepers Creepers).
Michael Keaton does what he can with the father role, which at least offers him more range than the one in First Daughter. A big plus is Breckin Meyer as Lohan’s brother, who brings an understated sensitivity to a role that’s just not very well written. And Matt Dillon proves himself a good sport as the two-dimensional bad guy.
Finally, there’s Robinson’s direction, which is fast-paced, clever and inventive enough that you don’t get too bogged down by the screenplay’s inadequacies or the overuse of CGI and general cuteness. Robinson — or someone working with her — has also put together one of those odd soundtracks that’s largely made up of undistinguished pop songs that few younger viewers will recognize (“Magic” by Pilot from 1974?). I can only assume these selections are intended as a sop to adults accompanying the target audience. Whatever the reasoning, it’s the sort of touch that helps give the film a personality — however slight — it otherwise would have lacked. Rated G
– reviewed by Ken Hanke