Jan. 13 2011 12:00 AM

'Green Hornet' tries so hard, it becomes a trying experience

Much more of a Seth Rogen showcase than it is a costumed crime fighter flick or a Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") film, "The Green Hornet" transports the masked avenger from 1930s radio -- and 1960s TV -- into a new century.
Or perhaps it's more accurate to say it drags him in: Although the movie aims for a playful, devil-may-care attitude, you can always hear the gears grinding, the belts squeaking and the engine rumbling.
Rogen and Evan Goldberg's screenplay, which was obviously goosed with a lot of Rogen ad-libs and improvisations once the cameras were rolling, labors to create an atmosphere of fun, like a nervous host who cranks up the music, fires up the hot tub and hastily refills everyone's glass the minute the party seems to be dying down. In fact, Rogen and Goldberg spend so much of their energy merely trying to construct a basic framework that they never get around to putting an actual plot in motion, much less filling in the sketchy supporting characters.
While "Hornet" is not a complete wash-out, it's frustrating to see an impressive cast and some imaginative ideas mired in a movie that's not funny enough to qualify as a worthwhile comedy and not lively or stylish enough to impress the "Iron Man'/"Dark Knight" crowd. Without question, Rogen is trying very hard here; unfortunately, watching "Hornet" can also be rather trying.
The set up takes its sweet time establishing Britt Reid (Rogen) as the wasted, wastrel son of ultra-serious, ultra-uptight Los Angeles newspaper publisher James Reid (Tom Wilkinson). Britt's days and nights of non-stop debauchery end abruptly when his dad dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting, leaving Britt as the airheaded heir to a media empire. A wrongheaded prank perpetrated by Britt and his father's former associate, Kato (Jay Chou), opens the door to an unexpected opportunity for Britt: He and Kato will become mysterious vigilantes, who will, in Britt's words, "pose like villains, but we'll act like heroes." In doing so, they hope to shut down the crime syndicate of Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), whose forces have been bedeviling the City of Angels.
The film's central joke is that Britt is bossy but gutless, while Kato is both the brains of the operation and considerably more capable in a fight. This leads to friction between the friends.
"I'm the hero, you're the sidekick!" Britt brays. "I'm Indy, you're Short Round!"
"You're a Yuppie wimp, and I'm a martial arts expert who grew up penniless on the streets!" Kato responds.
"You mean penis-less on the streets!" Britt cracks.
This leads to a brotherly brawl between the two in which Britt's mansion is spectacularly smashed up in what might be a homage to Inspector Clouseau's battles with his houseboy Cato in the "Pink Panther" films. This is about as funny as "Hornet" gets.
Where does Cameron Diaz fit into all this? She almost doesn't. Diaz drops in about a third of the way through the film as Lenore Case, a journalism-savvy temp (and amateur criminologist) assigned to help Britt at the newspaper office. Before she can land the job, however, she has to put up with put-downs about her age. "Thirty-six?" Britt says, incredulously. "We'll have to build a ramp!" There are also cracks about "Cocoon," since Cameron Diaz is apparently now one step away from Jessica Tandy, circa 1985.
The movie has a few bright moments, including a kooky tribute to Coolio and a snappy scene in which Chudnofsky faces off against the pompous, meth-dealing club owner Danny "Crystal" Clear (played by one of Rogen's former co-stars). Every so often Gondry's surrealistic humor seeps in, as well, most notably in a slick montage in which word of a $1 million bounty on the Hornet's head travels quickly through the underworld. Those who remember the short-lived TV series will be amused by a quick shot of Kato's sketches of the late Bruce Lee.
But the crucial chemistry between Rogen and Chou fizzles out, partly between Rogen is a loquacious loudmouth and the Taiwanese Chou has tremendous difficulty with English. Their banter is often more strenuous than hilarious, a problem that carries over to many other parts of the film as well. While Waltz seems to be enjoying himself, he's basically stuck in the same boat with Diaz, floundering around without a genuine role to play.
Rogen and Goldberg's script practically begs to be compared to last year's "Kick-Ass," a far more successful combination of oddball comedy and action. "The Green Hornet" has plenty of pop-culture references but not much punch.