Out of Control, But Entertaining

At the movies, the summer’s already-overcrowded category I call “Nothing much, but better than The Matrix Reloaded ” is growing fast. This week, add The Hulk , another mindless but entertaining piece of cinematic comic-book technology that is short on coherence and big on everything else that inflates opening-week grosses and packs them in at the mall. Magazines bulge with articles on the computer-generated imagery that transforms The Hulk from a four-colored comic book created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and a small-screen TV series called The Incredible Hulk , which ran from 1977 to 1982) into an epic-scale motion picture that looks like it cost more than the war in Iraq. The marketing is out of control: Green-monster Hulk toys, video games, online stills, scenes and classic Marvel comic-book covers dominate the Internet. I don’t understand any of it, and couldn’t care less. All I know is that The Hulk is big, dopey and crammed with special effects that take the breath away.

Like Clark Kent in Superman , Billy Batson in Captain Marvel and Peter Parker in Spider-Man , there’s a mild-mannered wimp behind the humongous, rampaging creature called the Hulk. He is Bruce Banner (played by Australian actor Eric Bana), a nice, brilliant, desperately poor, idealistic but strangely moody young scientist whose girlfriend and pretty lab partner, Dr. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), is horrified when Bruce’s emotional detachment changes dramatically after a sudden, deadly dose of gamma radiation. Betty doesn’t know it, but guys in the audience who used to be teenage boys obsessed with the Hulk before they learned to pad their Speedos already know what’s coming next. Bruce starts acting like something other than a Bruce. Terrible headaches lead to blackouts that leave him sapped. Something is stirring inside. Suddenly he expands like a blowfish, destroying freeways, turning his science lab into toothpicks, punching the walls out of his house with bare knuckles. Looking like a cross between King Kong and a two-ton Arnold Schwarzenegger overdosing on neutraceutical hormone-replacement shakes, the Hulk goes ballistic. The reasons behind this Jekyll-and-Hyde mutation are so convoluted that none of them make much sense, but in flashbacks we get shards of childhood torture in which his demonic father used Bruce as a guinea pig in human regeneration experiments, injecting the little boy with chromosomes from starfish, jellyfish and sea cucumbers. Bruce grows up with a powerful genetic immune system that he’s unaware of until a weird janitor shows up at the lab and starts messing with the test tubes. Jumping Jolly Green Giant! The mop-pusher is really Bruce’s demented Dad (Nick Nolte), a fiend who has been locked away for 30 years. It’s never clear just what this lunatic wants from the grown-up Bruce, but they are both pursued with a vengeance by the insane U.S. military, led by Betty’s father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliott), and archvillain rival scientist Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas, last seen as Reese Witherspoon’s handsome hillbilly husband in Sweet Home Alabama ).

But enough about the interminable plot, which lasts no more than half an hour of the two-hour-and-19-minute running time and remains rigidly resistant to logic. It’s more fun to cut to the interminable action sequences, which consist of split-screen computer graphics and all manner of visual tricks that are entirely too terrifying for any child under 12 years old. (Not to mention incomprehensible.) The metaphysical mumbo-jumbo about molecular biology, cellular penetration and enzyme replacement is just padding inserted to drag out the script by John Turman, Michael France and James Schamus, without a trace of educational enlightenment. The high points are the secret government lab in Pop Art Crayola paint hidden behind the entrance of an old drive-in movie theater, and the incredible Hulk himself, like a green rubber ducky the size of Mt. Rushmore, using the mountains and canyons of the Mojave Desert as his personal trampoline, tossing U.S. military helicopters through the sky like Frisbees, kicking armored tanks off the sand dunes like footballs, and bouncing off the Golden Gate Bridge in time to reduce the city of San Francisco to Tinker Toys at rush hour. Like I said, none of this makes one bit of sense (what does the Hulk want, besides a chance to hold the terrified Jennifer Connelly in the palm of his hand like Fay Wray?), but it’s fun to spot Lou Ferrigno, the Muscle McGurk who played His Hulkiness in the TV series, in a cameo appearance, and a recommended suspension of disbelief will pay off in a few unintentional laughs, especially when Mr. Nolte is on the screen.

On the downside, The Hulk could benefit mightily from a pair of scissors. It seems somewhat beneath the talent and vision of its director, Ang Lee. (Hard to believe this is the same man who directed the unforgettable The Ice Storm , even though he did demonstrate an enthusiasm for escapism with the more imaginative and far superior Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon .) Finally, like all comic-book flicks, The Hulk is not about acting, so the impressive cast is hugely wasted, but do check out the weird, hysterical and howling histrionics of Mr. Nolte. Instead of treating The Hulk like the overpaid job it is, he works the role of a babbling old nutcase like it was King Lear. Looking like a cadaverous Albert Einstein stoned on hallucinogenic mushrooms, he misses the fun, overcompensating for the material’s intellectual paucity in a kick-ass riot of bad acting.

Writer’s Block

A bogus, smile-free comedy called Alex and Emma is a real head-scratcher. It’s been decades since Rob Reiner played Meathead on All in the Family , but has he lost every trace of his once-famous comic timing? Can this dirge have been directed by the same Rob Reiner who immortalized When Harry Met Sally ? In the field of humor, he comes by his credentials seriously. None of the experience shows here. Alex and Emma is a boring, hapless cinematic corpse that deserves a eulogy by Billy Crystal.

Nobody survives. Luke Wilson, the more appealing of the two current Wilson siblings (and a much better actor than brother Owen), plays Alex, a writer with 30 days to write a complete novel he hasn’t even started yet, thereby earning a publisher’s advance that will save him from death at the hands of the Cuban loan sharks to whom he owes $100,000 in gambling debts. Kate Hudson, who is making so many movies she’s in danger of wearing out her welcome fast, plays Emma, a stenographer who arrives to take dictation. While she jots down dialogue, corrects errors, ruins his train of thought with annoying questions about character, structure and trajectory (all valid, if you ask me), and casually points out hundreds of clichés, the plot changes by the hour. In no time at all, it looks like a movie made with a rewind button. In fictional inserts, he becomes his own hero and she becomes all of the peripheral romantic objects of his lust. Playing Swedish, German, Spanish and American au pairs, Ms. Hudson shows off different wigs and accents from scene to scene. Eventually, she gets so involved with the fictional characters that she falls in love, her attention wanders, she loses a chunk of the manuscript in a mud puddle, he has to start over, they break up …. It goes on and on in a marathon of tedium, with no hope of igniting anything that vaguely resembles audience attention.

In a movie with lines like “The mind is an ethereal web of contradicting emotions” and a plot about a bad writer working on a book of mind-boggling ineptitude, anemia is fatal. The book Mr. Wilson is dictating is so boring you can’t even hear it read aloud without dozing. People all around me were checking those watches that have light-up dials. One man snored incessantly. Whatever were these people thinking? Alex and Emma isn’t funny, clever or interesting. It has no tempo, energy or pulse. It isn’t even contrived enough to be aggravating. It just arrives on a slab, ready for the autopsy. This is especially sad for Kate Hudson. As a romantic leading lady, the daughter of Goldie Hawn lacks her mother’s sparkle and huggable charm. I don’t think she’s ready to carry a whole movie by herself at this point in her career, but bad movies are happening too fast and she’s starring in entirely too many of them at once. Take a little time to learn something, honey. Acting careers have a shelf life, too, and with a few more bombs like Alex and Emma , the expiration date on yours could mature before your pension.

Aussie Posse

I could watch Australia’s tempting and versatile Rachel Griffiths read the Melbourne phone book aloud and never glance at the clock, but there are times during the gritty crime drama The Hard Word when I would rather be reading it myself. In her Golden Globe–winning performance on HBO’s Six Feet Under , Ms. Griffiths’ clear, precise American accent is as perfectly edgy and neurotic as any native-born Californian’s. Back in her homeland for The Hard Word , you could cut the density of her flat, hard-boiled Australian dialect with a hedge trimmer. The same goes for Guy Pearce, who went from the lisping, hilarious Sydney drag queen in his breakthrough film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert , to the callous cop in L.A. Confidential with amazing ease. These people can do just about anything. But when it comes to success, they’re still at the mercy of script and direction. The Hard Word , written and directed by Scott Roberts, needs more of both. In a nutshell, this latest entry in the overworked crime-family genre is about three brothers in the same prison cell (a credulity strain for starters) serving time for armed robbery. Now they’re about to be released from prison at the same time (yeah, sure), but first their longtime, arrogant and very crooked criminal lawyer, Frank Malone (Robert Taylor), blackmails them into one more multimillion-dollar heist. Dale (Guy Pearce), the dominant brother and gang leader, risks everything to find his way back into the arms of his sexy blonde wife, Carol (Rachel Griffiths), unaware that she has been screwing around with Frank while he was behind bars. Betrayed, felled by food poisoning and running from both Frank and the cops, the brothers knock off the Melbourne Cup, dismantle the video surveillance system, cuff the guards, rob the bookies of millions and head for Sydney in the hijacked car of a lady meteorologist. Everybody underestimates Carol, who knows her way around the jungle and will stop at nothing to get her share of the profits, including murder. There’s an incredible chase through traffic, a daring escape that culminates in a leap from a bridge onto a moving freight train, and a series of snafus as Carol moves from bed to bed, using every natural attribute at her disposal to score. The movie has its distractions, but it reminded me of a tamer, less convincing take on the great Raoul Walsh film, White Heat , with Mr. Pearce in the James Cagney role and Ms. Griffiths as Virginia Mayo. It’s the kind of predictable programmer that used to fill the bottom half of double bills, but it’s worth the effort to catch Ms. Griffiths as the kind of seductive siren who lures men to the edge of the cliff with their headlights on, ready to die with smiles on their faces. In the New Age mold of Lizabeth Scott and Lana Turner, she’s just swell as a trashy, curvaceous carnivore with Farrah Fawcett hair and a heart beneath her tank top that beats like a cannibal’s tom-tom.