In the world of cinematic “geek-stoner” comedy, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have proven to be as savvy a writing and producing duo as the industry has to offer. Time and again, they have put their screenplays into the hands of directors so varied and unique that it automatically lends each film an additional air of offbeat sophistication. For ther first major script, Superbad, they contracted indie darling Greg Mottola, whose keen sensibility for teen-boy angst made the film’s comedy soar. Then came Pineapple Express, a zany ”action-pot” movie for which Rogen and Goldberg sought out director David Gordon Green, indie auteur of Southern-bred intimacy and oftentimes deadly-serious tragic folklore. Their consistently interesting choice of directors reveals an audacity one might not initially detect in a writing team so consistently drawn to films about sex, drugs, and the geeks who crave them. Rogen and Goldberg, though, are not merely stoner comedy writers, but smart filmmakers who want to play with conventional tone and expectations. They aim to elevate geek culture into a lofty world of outsized heroes.
It makes sense, then, that a screw-loose crime-fighting epic was next on their list. After many years of creative jolts and halts, The Green Hornet is finally arriving in theaters, having been adapted by Rogen and Goldberg into precisely the kind of horny-kitsch romp they seem determined to one day perfect. As if their own skewed worldview weren’t enough spice, the trail-blazing visual sensibility of their latest brilliant director, Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), helps complete Hornet‘s transition from straight-laced radio serial into a kinky mess of origin-story entertainment.
Yes, I said “kinky mess.” There is nothing neat and tidy about The Green Hornet, and indeed, its least successful sequences take place towards the film’s beginning, when it first seems as if all this oddball creative talent will be wasted on a conventional hero story arc. But as the film progresses, its makers seem more comfortable to raise the freak flag and let it sail them right to the edge. There is certainly a rough-and-tumble aspect to this production, a heedless sense of “we’re not sure what the hell we’re doing, but we like it.” The mise-en-scene at times feels awkward, the visual effects are more loopy than slick, and the digital 3-D presentation is made to look like some odd cross between a hologram and a pop-up book.
What becomes clear as the film rollicks along, however, is that all of these choices are intentional, sassy slaps to the face of the traditionally earnest superhero adaptation. Director Gondry and writers Rogen and Goldberg have obviously never tackled this kind of material before, and thus mold it to fit their own unique sensibilities. There seems to be a purposeful flaunting of over-the-top kitsch, a gleeful mocking of pre-conceived notions of the superhero. Not every gag works, and at times it feels like the screenplay is torn between its natural tendency to break the rules and a sneaky reverence for its square-jawed source material. But that also lends The Green Hornet a feeling of tried-and-true authenticity, a sense of discovery and wonder that is often missing from the cynical seriousness of many superhero tales.
Oh, and also, it’s a hella-good time.
Most comic book fans know the basic framework of the story: Britt Reid is the wild-child son of a legendary newspaper magnate who, after his father’s death, re-evaluates his priorities and strives to fight for the social justice that was the noble goal of his father’s paper. A familiar set-up, yes, but a simple synopsis provides no clue to the joy with which these performers sink into the material. Rogen, slender though he may be, is still not a debonair womanizer or a daring hero. Instead of denying that fact, the film relishes it, depicting Reid as a normal guy, clueless in the ways of justice and heroism, who nonetheless fights for those ideals with heedless zeal as The Green Hornet (though he first prefers to be called the less-auspicious ”Green Bee”). The Hornet’s sidekick, martial-arts expert and gadget wiz Kato, is played by Taiwanese import Jay Chou, who, as rumored, steals the movie with his body acrobatics and deadpan humor. Cameron Diaz at first seems like window dressing as Reid’s secretary-slash-object of obsession, but she is later allowed to indulge in her own sweet and sassy zig-zag. And Christoph Waltz, fresh off his Oscar for Inglourious Basterds, follows up one of cinema’s most indelible villains with yet another quirky spin on violent menace — a lethal kingpin with insecurities about how “scary” he appears to his victims.
Rogen and Goldberg stamp every scene with their now-patented brand of geek-boy bravado, creating sequences that sidestep typical action-scene trajectory and focus on the messy aftermath of egos and neuroses. And the film sings loudest when Gondry opts to turn on his visual verve, transforming the film into a human cartoon in the best possible way. There’s not much traditional in The Green Hornet, and nothing that is quite perfect, but in this hodge-podge of creativity, this kinky mess, there is unbridled zest and an almost innocent sense of joy. And that, in its way, is heroic.