Turning Green 

Got high hopes for Hulk and From Justin to Kelly? Lower them.

Hulk is here. After years of rumors, speculation, and expectation, Hulk has smashed onto the scene. Despite the great potential for true art -- prestige director Ang Lee of Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the helm, A-list stars like Nick Nolte, Oscar-winning Jennifer Connelly, Next Big Thing Eric Bana, and a determination to tell the story of the mean, green clobberin' machine as a thoughtful meditation on the beast within us all, the inner Hulk that exists in everyone and waits to be unlocked -- Hulk will contend with two main questions answerable only by a team of top-notch computer animators. Question 1: How do Bana's pants stay on when he turns into the Hulk? Who cares? The film would be terribly indecent if they burst off like everything else. ("Are you the Incredible Hulk or are you just happy to see me?") Question 2: How does he look? A disappointing trailer during the Super Bowl riled many potential fans, who remarked that he looked fakey. His movements were criticized as awkwardly fast, too much like a cartoon. But the animators later insisted that what the world saw was by no means a finished product. So, months later, what does Hulk look like? Fakey. Awkwardly fast. A cartoon.

Hulk's appearance is not the most disappointing aspect of this expensive production. It's the story and dialogue. With Lee in charge, I had extremely high hopes that this would be the best superhero film ever, with an Academy Awards Best Picture fantasy -- so strong was my feeling that Lee's artistry could combine with a fascinating character, released to a war-weary public rife with misplaced rage and cultural impotence. Nah. This is an action movie that just tries too hard.

Bruce Banner (Bana) is a scientist researching the potential of gamma radiation as a regenerative tool. Distant and restrained, Bruce finds it difficult to connect emotionally with anyone or anything. Seems that there's some kind of parental-abandonment issue stemming from early childhood, which he barely remembers beyond his loving adoptive parents. Betty Ross (Connelly) is his research partner and recent ex. (Their offscreen breakup seems magnificently easy, and I hope the DVD has that as an added scene so I can take notes on avoiding future messy splits.)

They love each other, but Bruce is just too vacant and distant for her. Seems like she has parent issues of her own, including a domineering father (Sam Elliott), an aloof Army general whose interest in his daughter's life is more governmental than fatherly. Enter Talbot (Josh Lucas) -- head of a diabolical military research company -- whose attraction to Betty is both seedily physical and opportunist: He wants her and Bruce's research for his own project: developing self-repairing soldiers who can fight forever. A race of supermen, if you will.

Well, accidents tend to happen when scientific integrity and egomaniacal diabolism mix in the same laboratory. A blown circuit in Bruce's gamma radiator causes an accident that floods his compartment with radiation. But instead of dying horribly, he feels somehow better -- regenerated even. That is, until he gets angry. You know the rest: He gets big, green, strong. He smashes things. The Army goes after him. There's a showdown or two. The usual.

The look of the beast is irrelevant. Once Hulk appears, the film loses interest in Eric Bana and his interesting performance, and it all becomes about the Big Green Guy. He looks fine 25 percent of the time and usually only when he is still or quiet. But when he's running or jumping (I think physics professors would explain the impossibilities better than I) or fighting, he tends to look well, impossible in a way that makes us forget that ultimately this is a story about a man and what's inside him. To Lee's credit, there is much beauty in this film. There are gorgeous desert shots and visual collages of natural and unnatural elements: nuclear explosions, tree moss, frogs, machinery. But Lee loses track of the hero -- Banner -- and gets lost in the effect: Hulk. The real story is going on inside the scientist, and the script sets up for a big emotional breakthrough by establishing Bruce as distant and repressed. But when he finally gets his catharsis in the film's climactic confrontation with his father, the camera pans away, seemingly uninterested in the feelings behind Hulk and more interested in getting the show on the road. Bana's good performance is lost on Lee's impatience and special effects.

As action films go, this isn't bad. But ultimately, the efforts to treat the subject matter with sincerity and style give way to the need to blow things up -- a theme that the film both emulates and criticizes. Too bad. There seemed to be a message in there somewhere.

The other movie that opened this past weekend is From Justin to Kelly, which, unlike Hulk, is not an attempt at a thoughtful meditation on anything. I had hoped, from the pop-culture juggernaut that is American Idol, that there might be some slick production values or snazzy music or cute cameos or something worthy of remark that would make seeing the film worthy of the time and money expended beyond my secret crush on one of its stars. Not so, not so. This movie is crap from start to finish.

From Justin to Kelly amuses, though. Bad but never boring, it's poop that doesn't stink.

Meet Kelly -- cute prude from Texas whose girlfriends convince her to join them for Spring Break in Miami Beach. Meet Justin: member of the Pennsylvania Posse -- a group of three losers who have some kind of party business that pays for their school. They're at the beach to create theme parties à la margarita nights and whipped-cream bikini contests. Kelly and Justin meet casually in the movie's first musical number -- did I forget to mention that this is a musical? well, it is -- and somehow make a life-changing connection while dancing near each other, a connection invisible to me through the end of the movie. Regardless, they spend the rest of the film navigating a series of misunderstandings generated by Kelly's jealous friend Alexa -- a prissy, hickish bitch who wants our palm-tree-haired Justin all to herself. This is the plot, peppered with singing and dancing when the proceedings grow otherwise tiresome.

There are subplots: Posse party-maestro Brandon keeps having parties that break beach law, and a sexy lady cop keeps giving him tickets. Posse nerd has been chatting online with a sexy Internet nerdette, and they keep missing each other in their attempts to meet face to face. Kelly's friend Kaya has fallen for a sexy, older (skirted) waiter named Carlos, who shows her the dark underbelly of Miami: salsa dancing. These subplots weave in and out of the basic story, which would have Justin and Kelly having a nice, innocent summer fling if it weren't for the machinations of that Alexa.

Justin and Kelly are played craftlessly by well, Justin and Kelly -- Guarini and Clarkson, respectively. Neither has any film experience, and it shows. Guarini does a good deal better, and if I were to place money on it, I would say that he's the one who may have a film career ahead of him. He's no Olivier, but he's charming and sincere and funny.

Kelly? Well, she's no Britney Spears. Her emotional range is from A to A and a half, with occasional bursts of fun delivered in an otherwise joyless monotone. The rest of the cast is peopled with absolute unknowns, which is fine, because they are all likable enough and good singers as well as pleasant enough actors.

From Justin to Kelly is a kind of Beach Blanket Bingo for the 21st century, and the innocence of that era translates remarkably well to our not-so-innocent now. The movie's just dumb enough that you don't notice the lack of any curse words at all (except a couple of amusing "hell"s), no sex (only one real kiss that I noticed), and no violence any greater than a malicious whipped-cream attack. Quite a feat. The script is otherwise a drag, without interesting characters or real conflict. Although that damn Alexa sure does steam my clams. She's played by Mississippi girl Katherine Bailess in her film debut, and she's actually pretty good in a part that demands more of her emotionally (envy, lust, some other deadly sins, and finally redemption) than the callow protagonists.

The songs are pretty low-rent, with one or two qualifying as something that might make a Top 40 easy-listening radio playlist. The choreography swings mercilessly from dazzling to flaccid in the blink of an eye, and I guess that's impressive -- that there seems to be nobody paying attention to how this film looks. Miami is somehow rendered as colorless and deglamorized. Some dance numbers could fit nicely into a Broadway musical, while others are sloppy and casual -- as synchronized as MTV Spring Break footage of people just bopping to music.

Most disappointing is how little chemistry there is between our two stars. There's only one moment, and it's early on, where there might be genuine attraction, and it's the movie's best exchange: Justin, escaping hordes of screaming girls, ducks into a ladies' restroom. Kelly happens to be inside and points to a small window as an escape route. Justin: "Girl, my hair won't even fit through there." Kelly, suggestively: "I'm from Texas. I've seen bigger." Brava!

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