January is now so firmly established as an annual dumping ground for Hollywood’s rankest refuse that savvy filmgoers know to automatically duck all major-studio movies opening this month, no matter how superficially appealing they may seem. And yet it was hard not to hope that The Green Hornet might prove to be the first known exception. After all, it was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the team that penned Superbad, and directed by Michel Gondry, the oddball Frenchman behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With creative minds like that at work—and a slimmed-down Rogen unconventionally cast as the titular superhero—the result would at the very least have to be somewhat interesting. No?
Nope. It’s January, all right.
Those familiar with the character from the original 1940s serials or (more likely) the ’60s TV show will recognize the basic setup, albeit not much else. Hard-partying playboy Britt Reid (Rogen), the only son of a newspaper magnate (Tom Wilkinson), finds himself suddenly thrust into maturity when Dad kicks the bucket, leaving Britt the family business. In this iteration, it’s mostly Britt’s realization that Asian manservant Kato (Jay Chou) is both a badass martial-arts expert and a technological wizard that inspires him to don a silly-looking mask and go after criminals—gunning, in particular, for Russian crime boss Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, in his first big role since winning an Oscar for Inglourious Basterds).
Trouble is, The Green Hornet isn’t a superhero action movie so much as a spoof of the genre—one that has the occasional moment of absurd inspiration (a cameo appearance at the outset scores some laughs) but for the most part seems as desperate and random as the final sketch of a Saturday Night Live episode. Gondry’s presence behind the camera is nearly indiscernible, and Cameron Diaz, as the equivalent of Iron Man’s Pepper Potts, barely registers amidst the incoherent hubbub. (The film is being shown in murky post-converted 3D; I watched most of it with my special glasses off.) Saddest of all is watching poor Christoph Waltz struggle to be deliberately unthreatening as the “bad guy,” who’s never anything but an object of sarcastic ridicule. That goofy idea can sustain a five-minute sketch, but not a nearly two-hour feature.