So you want to take a big-screen, 3-D adaptation of the Dr. Suess-penned, children's classic, The Lorax, with its morality tale of anti-environmental, big business run amok and use it to hawk mini-sport SUVs from Mazda? Leave that stunning lack of cognitive dissonance to Hollywood synergy; clueless, stupid, money-grubbing synergy. The damn thing isn't even a hybrid.
And that's also the first clue to the half-assed sincerity The Lorax pays to its source. That's sad, since 2011 was already a sparse year for quality animated features (Rango was the only stand-out while Puss In Boots was shockingly good for a spin-off of the awful Shrek franchise), especially after 2010, which brought us the great How To Train Your Dragon and, ironically, Despicable Me. If The Lorax is a bellwether, then 2012 is looking grim.
Ted Wiggins (Zac Efron) lives in Thneed-Ville (Population: Dumb), a cookie cutter town made mostly of plastic and walled off from the outside world. Think The Truman Show, right down to the omniscient video surveillance utilized by Mr. O'Hare (Rob Riggle), who runs O'Hare Air, a company that sells fresh, bottled air as if they were the Culligan Man, and who seemingly owns Thneed-Ville.
Ted has a crush on a cute red-head named Audrey (Taylor Swift), who dreams of seeing a real tree. All of the "trees" in Thneed-Ville are glorified lamps (which everyone just loves -- like SUVs!) and people have forgotten about real trees. Audrey paints a mural of them on the side of her house in all their fuchsia-colored cotton candy-topped glory, which is promptly painted over as if it were graffiti, by the all-seeing eye of Mr. O'Hare. Trees make air for free and that's bad for business.
Ted is convinced that if he can find a tree for Audrey he can win her heart. He quickly comes to find that getting a tree isn't going to be easy or even safe. His grandmother (Betty White) tells him to go out beyond the wall -- in a sequence that oddly reminded me of THX-1138 -- and find the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who knows what happened to the trees.
And if I recall correctly, most of that lazy jumble of generic narrative tropes isn't actually in the book. That's the problem with stretching a 45 page short story into something that barely approaches a feature length film (I figure the run time for The Lorax at 78 minutes before the animator credits, always a big group). While something like Where the Wild Things Are does the same thing -- with 48 pages -- that was a film enmeshed in far deeper personal themes, elucidated with a rambunctious and purely cinematic brilliance -- a wonderfully tangible and fantastic world, built by director Spike Jonze, and made organic due to its practical visual FX, and judicious use of CG.
The Lorax, by contrast, is so shallow, clumsy and obvious in its themes that even a dyed-in-the-wool, tree-hugging Occupier would be annoyed by its cloying simplicity. While the art design is nice, crisp and colorful, paying a fair amount of respect to the look of Suess, that's all it is, with the addition of some generic character design (excepting the adorable Lorax). Just a giddy, candy coated cornucopia mixed with the grim, dead world beyond the walls of Thneed-Ville. The lyrical rhymes of Suess make cameo appearances while the oh-so annoying declaration, "I know, right?!" somehow sets the bar for the banter between Audrey and Ted.
Anyway, after inspiring the good-natured wrath of the Lorax (a welcome Danny DeVito), and the universal ambivalence of consumers, Once-ler decides not to cut down the entire forest for what amounts to a multi-purpose Shamwow...until his product catches on.
Which sounds like a decent hook except the ham-fisted, weakly satirical and tonally unmoored narrative is executed with all the subtlety of a fart in an elevator.
Writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul -- inexplicably both the writers of the far superior Despicable Me -- hammer the environmental message home with the grace of kid playing Whack-A-Mole, as their jumbled narrative struggles to join the book's core -- and at heart, admirable -- themes of sustainability and protecting the environment with the filler material needed to stretch it out into something longer than an hour. If you're looking for a similarly themed, animated film that's actually (mostly) great, Wall-E already knocked this ball out of the park.
Co-directors Chris Renaud (again of the better Despicable Me) and Kyle Balda direct the disjointed proceedings as we hop back and forth between the Once-ler's tale of his youth, when he found the natural world filled with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Truffula trees with which he deigns to make a product, called a "thneed," culled from their hairy tops, and the suspense free sub-plot that finds Ted dodging the toothless, utterly ineffective villain, O'Hare as Ted attempts to free Mars. Wait, that's Total Recall. Ultimately, both films are about ruthless, corporate assholes and air supplies.
The added layer of an incongruous soundtrack of mostly annoying, haltingly utilized songs -- yes, The Lorax also half-asses as a musical, as well as a comedy and overall thing that exists -- was more or less making me wish I'd opted for Project X.
I'm positive Project X, the found-footage tale of a crazy, teenaged house party gone explosively wrong is just as much a stupid, immature and absurd waste of time -- and yes, I realize the parallel is subverted by Suess being aimed at actual kids. But even those in the crowd seemed bored by the combination anemic conflicts and unfunny exposition.
Besides, I hate agreeing with Lou Dobbs. If The Lorax insists on being that shitty it should probably have some naked chicks.
Director Michael Cuesta is a Long Islander. I remember thinking that about L.I.E., his fairly riveting (as all things Brian Cox are) 2001 film that stylistically drew as much from Larry Clarke's pervy Oklahoma sensibilities as it did from Harmony Korine's similar predilection rendering urban outcasts as woeful victims who have little choice but to reside in the aftermath of their own fucked up circumstances -- both of which, indie directors who were on fire at the time.
With Roadie, I wished Cuesta had channeled another Long Islander, Hal Hartley. A fucking master of melodrama, deadpan humor and odd lyricism, Hartley spawned an esoteric cosmology of films from The Unbelievable Truth to Simple Men to Henry Fool, all steeped in that golden, idyllic utopia east of Queens and in a style all Hartley's own.
That's something that would have benefitted Roadie's ultimate flatness and lack of style. It's shooting for the same slice-of-off-kilter-life vibe while totally missing the organic nature of it, and a conceit done to death: the hometown boy who made good and fell back to Farmingdale -- or wherever.
Hit the Road.
Jimmy (Ron Eldard) has been a roadie for Blue Oyster Cult for over 20 years when he's unceremoniously dumped from their upcoming, South American tour (what's weird about that sentence is that it's now 2012). Forced to go back home to ostensibly care for his onset Alzheimer's mother (television vet Lois Smith), who's been gardening the whole time, Jimmy runs into his high school flame, Nikki (Jill Hennessy), now a sultry songstress who's married to Randy (Bobby Cannavale), Jimmy's forgotten rival from the old days. After an hour or so, shit comes to a head when nobody gets laid at a coke-fueled party between the three and a really killer Jethro Tull montage almost makes this movie seem like it knows what it's doing.
There are individual moments in Roadie that ring true and rise above the clumsy direction and slipshod chemistry of its actors. But they are mostly drowned out by the meandering narrative and often gratingly stilted dialogue. The first act, in particular, is rife with overlong scenes and performances that lack much in the way of depth. When Cannavale shows up things take a turn for the better, though it feels like he's only in this because he lives around the corner from where it was shooting.
Roadie has a total TV movie of the week vibe. I was more than once reminded of the 2001 television film, When Billy Beat Bobby, the historic telling of the 1973 tennis match between Billy Jean King and Bobby...see, you already stopped giving a shit.
The music of Roadie mostly recalls the sort of generic rock filler used to replace songs Roadie couldn't afford to license. But what really sinks the film is its inert inability to feel threatening or dangerous. It never really fleshes out its sparse narrative -- you never get a real sense of the film's namesake job -- and only manages a shallow sense of its characters with a story that says very little and does that in the most generic manner possible; at least for filmmakers with their hearts, clearly, in the right place.
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