I try. Honest to God, when sitting in a crowded auditorium, watching a charmless, lazy, ridiculously unfunny movie such as Wild Hogs, I try to get on the audience's wavelength and figure out what it is that's making them howl with laughter.
Occasionally, I succeed. When I saw last spring's repellent revenge-of-the-nerds flick The Benchwarmers, it was easy to attribute the merriment to the gender and age of the movie's chief demographic: What eight-year-old boy wouldn't love 90 minutes of booger jokes and baseballs to the crotch? When I attended Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, the packed audience roared at nearly every hateful thing our heroic hick said and did; that, too, made sense, as the attendees were obviously composed of die-hard Larry fans for whom he could do no wrong. (For Pete's sake, they applauded at the movie's end.)
But in the case of Wild Hogs - which concerns four longtime biker buddies who decide to reinvigorate their staid, middle-aged lifestyles through a cross-country road trip - I'm at a loss. Through the course of Walt Becker's comedy, the sizable Friday-afternoon audience (almost none of whom, it should be noted, were kids) whooped it up at the most pedestrian setups and lamest gags. Leaving the auditorium at the film's end, a forty-something woman, still chuckling, said to her movie-going companion, "That was hilarious." Exactly what is going on here?
To take but one example from the film: When the camera is fixed on William H. Macy's spaz as he tools down the street, and then he looks behind him to check out his friends' progress, doesn't the audience know that as soon as Macy faces front, a heavy object will thwack! him in the face and knock him off his bike? Or is the crowd, for some reason, in hysterics because of the predictability of the joke? (Macy has to perform this shtick more than once during the course of the movie, and John Travolta has a variant on it, too, when he turns to look at his pals, turns to the front, and finds himself face-to-face with a squawking, angry crow.)
For that matter, when the foursome takes an impromptu skinny dip in a roadside lake, isn't it obvious that their manly idyll will be interrupted by a vacationing family (complete with a sweet-faced little girl) who will be aghast upon realizing that the guys are naked? When, after a night's sleep, the men are seen curled up together under a blanket, commenting about how their asses hurt from "riding something that big" all day, isn't it inevitable that a cop will happen upon them and completely misinterpret the exchange? And that the cop will be a lascivious homosexual hoping to turn their quartet into a quintet? (Are you noticing a running theme here? Gay panic is a perfectly valid movie subject - Hilary Swank, after all, won an Oscar for a film on the issue - but must it continually be used in the service of stale gags?)
Over and over, the audience responded with delight to the most anemic setups and punchlines screenwriter Brad Copeland could conceivably muster. And granted, I probably see more movies than the average Joe, but hasn't everyone seen these comic staples - which include the guys running out of gas in the desert, igniting the wrath of a bad-ass group of bikers, and eventually becoming heroes to the local townsfolk - too many times already? With Wild Hogs completely devoid of clever dialogue and anything even resembling surprise, not only do I not understand the laughter, but I can't fathom how it holds a person's basic interest; as soon as Tim Allen starts moping about how he's losing the respect of his young son - again - or Macy struggles with a computer that refuses to turn off the Internet porn, my mind instinctively wanders, and I find myself composing a shopping list or wondering if I filled out my tax forms correctly.
In a work of this ilk, I'm occasionally perked up by the performers, but here, the only thing keeping me alert was witnessing how badly they were being used. Ray Liotta, as the head of the rival biker gang, probably comes off the worst - the actor's trademark open-mouthed cackle ("HEH-HEH-HEH-HEH-HEH!!!") sounds unusually hollow, and with reason - but poor Marisa Tomei, as the de rigueur love interest, places a close second. And while the typically phlegmatic Allen isn't exactly being used badly, he's being used, which is bad enough. (I'm aching to see him give a performance that doesn't make me think I'm watching a rerun of Home Improvement.)
Others fare better. Martin Lawrence is unexpectedly genial and (almost) relaxed, while Macy, bless his heart, is doing his best to give a performance; too bad the material still makes both of them look like saps. And Travolta, striving for a loose, goofy spontaneity, saves what there is to save of the picture - he's always doing something inventive, even if you're never quite sure what it is he's doing. Yet in a movie as unrepentantly crummy as this one, nobody emerges unscathed, and there was no performer I felt worse for than Peter Fonda, who shows up at the climax as a motorcycle-riding deus ex bike-ina. Fonda's casting is the movie's one moment of wit, and sadly, no one in the audience seemed to get the joke; it's almost unbearably depressing to think that, for many, Peter Fonda won't be thought of as the patron saint of Easy Rider, but of Wild Hogs.
In David Fincher's Zodiac, which explores the decades-long manhunt of southern California's most notorious serial killer, there's an inevitable scene in which Chloe Sevigny tells husband Jake Gyllenhaal that he's getting too wrapped up in the case, and another in which a wall calendar distractingly reads "1980," when a preceding title card has told us it's 1983. If I counted correctly, those are the only two weak - or even close to weak - scenes in the entire movie. For Zodiac is an absolutely superb dramatic thriller, a work so thick with tension and intrigue, and so splendidly performed and crafted, that, even at more than two-and-a-half hours, it never threatens to be dull. Fincher stages the killings with nerve-racking gusto - the composition is always slightly off-center, and the accompanying soundtrack unusually quiet - but the great surprise of the film is that the investigation itself, conducted by working-class cops and dedicated journalists, is laden with intelligent, obsessive thrills; most of the movie takes place in the early- to mid-1970s, and it's no overstatement to say that Zodiac could comfortably sit next to great, paranoid '70s classics such as All the President's Men and The Parallax View. With its marvelously terse, lucid screenplay by James Vanderbilt (based on Robert Graysmith's book), and fearsomely committed, humane performances by the likes of Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Edwards, Zodiac - like the recent The Good Shepherd - is a large-scale, hugely satisfying film, and an extraordinary upping of the ante from its director. Over the past 15 years, David Fincher has fashioned some spectacularly nasty entertainments. With Zodiac, he's finally created a work of art.