'Herbie: Fully Loaded': Old Engine in a New Body

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

In 1968, Volkswagen Beetles were cute. Astonishments of miniaturized engineering, they seemed to counter everything that Detroit iron, with its aggressive lines, gigantic high-octane furnaces and throaty, stinky yowls, stood for. Little Deuce Coupes and GTOs ruled, standing for Detroit's hegemony and the United States' as well; "Bugs" were the counterculture's rebuke to that rule. The people's wagon stood for people, not men; it stood for love, not power; it stood for peace, not war. Nearly every baby boomer has one in his past; it was a way of joining the crusade.

Now: uh-uh. It's just another car.

That's just one of the reasons "Herbie: Fully Loaded" doesn't begin to work. The icon around which it was built has no meaning anymore. You look at it and think: So?

It helps even less that the special effects, so vivid in 1968's "The Love Bug," where Herbie was invented, now seem hopelessly outdated. Back then, when Disney got a car to wink, it was pretty freakin' far out! It was cuter than cute. Now, in an age of CGI, where cityscapes and sentient beings and armies routinely come to life, where irises dilate and gossamer water spumes refract in the sunlight, seeing a metal lid close over a headlamp is pretty tame stuff. As a movie illusion, the little car remains essentially unexpressive, even when it's winking at Jeff Gordon.

Who knew Herbie was gay, not that it matters.

Anyhow, poor Gordon is in "Herbie: Fully Loaded" as part of the movie's other salient and repulsive aspect: the sellout of NASCAR by NASCAR for any damn thing. Here's a movie that postulates a typical stock car race can be won by not merely a rookie professional driver but an amateur who, moreover, beats dozens of highly skilled professional hero-athletes who are risking not merely loss or humiliation but their lives as they rush for the checkered flag. And she does it without breaking a sweat. The racing organization can't have it both ways, can it? NASCAR, it tells one audience, is a cutthroat arena of grits and guts where only the strong and fearless survive. Bite off and chew a plug of that, pardner! But here, by its cooperation with the Disney factory, NASCAR says it's also warm 'n' cuddly, and that if you love your magic bug, it'll repay you with victory. Why does it allow itself to be co-opted by a story that diminishes the skills, experience and talent it takes to win?

Those issues aside, the movie that remains is at once mild and weird; it lacks the energy that director Angela Robinson brought to her breakout film, "D.E.B.S.," and instead has a big-studio stamped-and-milled feeling to it. "Herbie: Fully Loaded" is set in an almost sexless world, and its view of young people and young behavior fits in completely with the original "Love Bug" -- it's kind of pre-sexual-revolution. Then, strangely, it stops at one point to sexualize Lindsay Lohan, its pretty, almost personality-free star, by suddenly shoving her into high heels and a kilt that comes to a stop somewhere not far enough south to reach the equator. That's a lotta leg on view, primed to erotic tension by the arch angle induced by the patent-leather heels, particularly as they harden her calves. (Kids, I'm a highly trained professional and I get paid to notice this sort of thing; don't try this at home.)

Generically, I suppose, "Herbie: Fully Loaded" decodes into a girlpower essay, feeble in its reach, unconvincing in its execution, cute in its tone, endless in its unspooling. Lohan plays Maggie Peyton, a young woman with racing in her blood, as her dad (the underused Michael Keaton) is a former champ. But he's putting all his money behind his son's racing career, whereas she's the one who inherited the reflexes and the will to race. But, as a college graduation gift, Ray lets her buy a $75 junker in an auto graveyard, and as fate would have it, that's where famous No. 53, which got Dean Jones in multiple winner's circles back in the '60s, has gone to die. But Herbie is the Beetle too tough for extinction and, having a will of his own, forces the young woman to choose him, then reveals his genius for racing in cute ways.

The movie is set up to spotlight infantile dramatizations of real-world problems, then not acknowledge them: The Peyton clan is completely dysfunctional, but the movie addresses this only by indirection; Papa Ray is one of those hidebound traditionalists who thinks he can insist that his daughter be a certain thing, as opposed to letting her be what her nature demands.

But he's not the villain. That role goes to another absurd conceit, a NASCAR champ named Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) who, beaten in a pickup race by Herbie with Maggie hanging on for dear life, conceives a vendetta against the car and the young woman. The sexual innuendo here -- handsome older man, extremely seductive younger woman, relationship full of hostility and intimidation -- is all the more powerful for the movie's utter inability to face it. I'm thinking: Why don't they just get a room? Frankly there's a lot more heat between these two, separated by taboo and tradition, than between Lohan and her nominal if puppy-like love interest, played by the unexceptional Justin Long.

Of course all plot strains pull us toward the Big Race, where Maggie, astride Herbie, must race for all the dough against the evil Trip. Any doubts about the outcome? If so, you'd best quit reading now because I'm about to give it away.

You have to say: This is not right. The glory of sports is that anyone can beat anyone. A Jim Braddock can beat a Max Baer and a Max Schmeling can beat a Joe Lewis. Boston can run four straight on the Yankees. Harvard can beat Yale, 29 to 29. The Cobden Appleknockers can beat Carver. Oh, wait, no, Carver won that one. Anyhow, what makes sports real to people is the process by which, on a given day, the little guy can get lucky, find some heroism, find some guts and unbelievably win. And when that happens -- ever so rarely -- it's almost transcendental.

In this movie, the win comes because Herbie is magic. So what's the big deal in that? What's the accomplishment? Where's the heroism, the skill, the grit? It's not that Maggie is a good driver or that she has more guts than the vile Trip Murphy, it's that Herbie, via film trickery, can do things no car in history can do, such as go sideways -- how lame is that? -- on the cyclone fence so that his 180-horsepower engine can get by Trip with his 800 horses. It's just . . . ridiculous. Nobody's going to believe it. Nobody should have to.

Herbie: Fully Loaded (101 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G, despite sexual innuendo.

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