'Hoot' Flaps Its Cute Wittle Wings, but Goes Nowhere

(Glenn Watson - Glenn Watson/newline.wireimage.c)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006

"Hoot" may be warm and fuzzy with all its adorable owls, triumphant kids and inviting Florida groves. But its forced, innocuous humor is unlikely to amuse anyone but the very young -- and the extremely forgiving.

This is no small disappointment, given the dearth of PG-rated movies available to younger viewers and the popularity of "Hoot's" source material: Carl Hiaasen's young-adult book of the same name, which won a Newbery Honor. Writer-director Wil Shriner directs his actors almost defensively -- as if the slightest hint of edginess might offend someone. (This approach may be second nature to him; Shriner worked in television for years.) Even Luke Wilson, whom some will remember as lively and amusing in comedies such as "Bottle Rocket" and "Old School," sleepwalks through these proceedings. He's missing only the pajamas.

Montana teenager Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman) and his always-on-the-move parents (Neil Flynn and Kiersten Warren) have just moved to sleepy Coconut Grove, Fla. Once again, Roy finds himself adapting to a new school, which means avoiding chubby bully Dana Matherson (Eric Phillips) and Beatrice (Brie Larson), a dour soccer jock who makes no secret of her dislike for Roy.

As Dana smushes Roy's face against a school bus window, Roy sees a towheaded, barefoot boy rushing past. This kid seems to be in a hurry and, wherever he's headed, it's not school. It isn't until Roy manages to befriend Beatrice that he gets the full story.

The blond streak is Beatrice's stepbrother, Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley), a runaway who hides out in the Everglades, collecting snakes and plotting against a developer named Muckle (Clark Gregg), who is building a pancake house atop a nesting ground of legally protected owls. Does Roy want to join Mullet and Beatrice on an environmentally conscious counteroffensive?

Although Lerman shows some life as Roy, he's an anomaly -- or is that an anemone? -- in a sea of insipidity. Larson is a likable but bland presence. She has neither the liveliness nor the spunky swagger for her role. Watching her "intimidate" Dana, who is probably twice her weight, is one of the movie's many trying moments.

While the younger actors struggle for vitality, the grown-ups overwork their comedy into a strained dither. As police officer Delinko, a bumbler whose efforts to prove himself an aspiring detective meet with perpetual failure, Wilson telegraphs his humor so obviously, you almost want to laugh out of politeness -- just so he's not embarrassed. (Is he trying to dislodge David Arquette, whose career as an unfunny buffoon in films such as "See Spot Run" shows no sign of flagging?) And Tim Blake Nelson -- so memorable as Delmar O'Donnell in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- plays a kid-hating site foreman with a Southern twang guaranteed to induce cringes anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.

In a movie as lethargic as this, you look desperately for anything to mentally pass the time. The Everglades look like a great place to visit, for instance, and those burrowing owls are goshdurn cute -- even if they do seem to be computer-generated insertions. And, hey, isn't that Jimmy Buffett playing Roy's marine biology teacher? Indeed, that is the Parrothead himself. (He's also one of the producers, and five of his songs are on the soundtrack.)

If there's one thing Shiner does do right, it's hiring Michael Chapman, one of the great cinematographers, whose inspired work includes "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Waltz" -- all for director Martin Scorsese. He renders Coconut Grove in such a burnished glow, you practically want to pull up a deck chair. And there's a lovely shot early in the movie, in which Roy's face is flattened against that bus window while, in the reflection, Mullet Fingers races alongside. Simultaneously we see the tussle of the moment -- between Roy and Dana -- and the next stage in the story: that mysterious runner. But what the shot doesn't show us is the direction the movie will soon be taking, one that would make anyone step off that bus and head toward, oh I don't know, Montana maybe?

Hoot (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild bullying and some profanity.

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