One of the signs that you’re a true movie star may be when you get cast in a classic role for which you seem completely wrong. Not many actors strike me as less obviously appropriate for the title role in The Green Hornet than Seth Rogen, the nerdy, laid-back, highly un-glamorous star of Knocked Up.
But then, casting Michael Keaton as Batman seemed crazy back in 1989, & he proved a revelation in the part.
Besides, I like Rogen. It bugged me to hear, repeatedly, the revulsion that so many viewers expressed toward his romantic pairing with Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up. Heigl played a promising TV entertainment journalist who finds herself pregnant after an impulsive & alcohol-fueled one-night stand with Rogen, as an amiable but aimless pothead. The disbelief & even distaste that many people had for the wary love affair that ensues seemed to me less about their different career aspirations & more about the visual: blond goddess in the clinch with bulky, broad-faced, frizzy-haired nebbish.
These commentators didn’t seem to notice Rogen’s sweetness, & the way he kept cracking the ravishing Heigl up, & breaking down her defenses—it was plausible that she’d fall for him. In the same way, I didn’t want to assume that a physically ordinary person couldn’t be convincing as a superhero; that only a pretty pan was fit to wear a mask. So I went to The Green Hornet with an open mind.
Also, I like The GH character. The gangbuster, who with his pal Kato is known to the police & the general public as a criminal himself, has always been sort of a cool, low-profile superhero. Created originally for radio in 1936 (it was established in the original series that he was the great-nephew of the Lone Ranger!) & featured in a couple of Universal serials in the ’40s, the masked, Fedora-lidded avenger, slightly similar in his minimalist costume to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, was never a really major presence in the comics.
He’s most remembered now for his short-lived but elegant incarnation as a TV series of 1966, which ran for just one 26-episode season. Produced by William Dozier of the ‘60s Batman series, it starred the ridiculously handsome Van Williams—about as different from Rogen as you could get—in the title role, & Bruce Lee as his sidekick Kato (reportedly, it was retitled The Kato Show for Hong Kong TV).
All this is by way of saying that I wish I could report more enthusiastically on the new Green Hornet movie. Alas, it’s not the left-field success I was hoping for. It isn’t a total disaster; it has a promising approach to the material & some very funny stretches. But it’s uneven & unsatisfying.
The approach of the script, by Rogen & Evan Goldberg, is that the GH’s alter-ego, newspaper heir Britt Reid, is a spoiled, strutting, hard-partying playboy with daddy issues whose personality swings constantly between likably exuberant & intolerably obnoxious. Kato, played here by the Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou, is secretly both the brains & the brawn of the outfit—the mechanical genius behind their tricked-out ride The Black Beauty, & also a martial artist of nearly supernatural prowess. He even thinks up the Green Hornet moniker.
Essentially, this turns the story into a buddy comedy, almost in the Hope/Crosby vein, & there’s no reason this couldn’t have worked—without mugging or pushing, Rogen & Chou show a solid onscreen rapport. Even more strikingly, both Britt & Kato take a shine to the same love interest (Cameron Diaz). The idea of a woman caught in a love triangle with a superhero & his sidekick had possibilities, but this is one of several strands that are set up & then neglected in favor of lengthy, tedious car-crash sequences.
Rogen wins genuine laughs early on, but his performance is unvaried & pushy; he doesn’t show enough of his Knocked Up sweetness, & he starts to grate by the second half. The movie isn’t any more generous to its curiously thin-skinned gangster villain, Christoph Waltz—despite a few ripely-written scenes, he doesn’t really get to let it rip.
Perhaps Rogen, Goldberg & director Michel Gondry let this Green Hornet get too conceptually convoluted—it is, after all, about a guy faking it as a superhero who is, in turn, faking it as a criminal. Even so, the movie didn’t lose me until a scene about midpoint when Britt & Kato quarrel, & then have a long, idiotic, pointless brawl.
Aside from the brawl’s implausibility under the terms of the movie, it was also queasily similar to the equally ugly fight scene last year between Robert Downey Jr. & Don Cheadle in the otherwise enjoyable Iron Man 2. It made me wonder if the superhero genre was belching up some unsavory resentment on the part of rich Hollywood nerds, over the reluctance of attractive nonwhites to play the sidekicks any more.