I'll be guest-hosting America's Number One radio show this Monday and Tuesday. You never know where the conversation will go when you're sitting in for Rush. A couple of years back, an inconsequential aside prompted one of the least expected producer's responses in my ear that I've ever had - from Rush's irreplaceable chief of staff, Kit Carson:
One day, for some reason I forget, I mentioned, in a throwaway line, Herbie Rides Again (1974). I think it was something to do with a Lindsay Lohan gag - she'd been in some terrible Herbie the Love Bug relaunch a few years back. And Kit said over my headphones, "Oh, my uncle was in that." Which stopped me short. Because who has an uncle in Herbie Rides Again?
Well, Kit did: Robert Carson. It's exactly a decade since Lindsay Lohan lifted the tarp off Herbie and took him for one more spin, and I don't think any of us would have foreseen how total the implosion of her career would have been in the years following. But my kids and I enjoyed the picture, so I thought it would be a fun pick for our Saturday movie date:
Let's face it, if Herbie can come back from the movie junkyard, anything can. The Love Bug just about held Disney together in those grim days between Uncle Walt's death (or, if you prefer, freezing) and The Little Mermaid a couple of decades later. Whatever the charms of the plucky little Volkswagen, the company's preference for an anthropomorphized Beetle over anthropomorphized deer and elephants and apes came to symbolize an era in which Disney lost faith in its own brand — the animated feature. After the original Love Bug (1968) came ever lamer sequels until - with nothing left to eke a movie out of except Herbie Has his Passenger-Side Airbag Removed and Herbie Rear-Ends Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang - the series expired out of sheer embarrassment.
And then in June 2005, after a period of Disney board turmoil and shareholder dissatisfaction unseen since the pre-Michael Eisner era, Herbie the Love Bug returns like the Grim Beeper or a 180-horsepower Horseman of the Apocalypse.
Herbie: Fully Loaded begins with a montage of the bug's triumphs 35 years ago when he won a ton of trophies for Dean Jones. But those days are long gone and Herbie is now a rusting heap of junk in some California auto graveyard. This strikes me as implausible. Even if he's kaput, he's still a famous car and he'd surely be in some hall of fame somewhere.
But scarcely has one begun to brood on this when young Maggie Peyton and her pa Ray show up. He's a washed-up racetrack star himself, played by Michael Keaton, but he can still buy his daughter, played by the then ubiquitous Lindsay Lohan, a graduation gift. So, invited to take her pick of the $75 wrecks, she plumps for the famous Number 53 — Herbie. Five writers have their names attached to what follows and I'm happy to say, regardless of who did what, it's all consistently formulaic and rather enjoyable. The minute you have a girl in a boy's world, you know you'll be in for a bit of dreary female-empowerment stuff, but don't worry, it's just a light gloss, all very perfunctory and not getting in the way of the fun. And the minute you find out the boy's world she's in involves car racing, you know the finale will be the Big Race, in which (warning: absolutely stunning out-of-the-blue plot spoiler) the empowered girl eventually wins out.
But, as the travel writers say, it's not the destination, it's the journey, and that's true even when you're on a race track going round in circles. There's an easy confidence about the project — Michael Keaton as the chauvinist dad and Matt Dillon as the obnoxious NASCAR champ aren't exactly stretching themselves, and Herbie himself may not be phoning it in, but nor is he flooring it. Could he wink his headlights back in '68? I'm sure I remember seeing him do it somewhere or other. It must have been a pretty cool effect half-a-century ago. Now it's nothing, and yet the film likes the little feller enough not to bury him in computer-generated shtick. He projects himself through his character rather than technical tricks.
That said, I'm not sure the director Angela Robinson or any of that quintet of writers understands the bounds of Herbie's internal reality. Is he a one-off, a car with a personality, if not a brain and magical powers? It would appear so. Yet the night before the big race the elderly bug has a make-out session with a brand-new gleaming yellow Volkswagen. Does she also have a personality, brain and special powers? Well, no, but I guess life can get pretty lonely if you're the only sentient automobile in town. And the mood music Herbie plays on his audio system to woo his soulmate is just right: "Hello" by Lionel Ritchie. That alone justifies the price of admission - and in any case, sentient or not, the yellow VW makes a much better love interest for Herbie than dull mechanic Justin Long does for Lindsay Lohan.
If you're wondering why they didn't lavish more special effects on Herbie, it seems the computer budget got swallowed up elsewhere. Because of complaints by moms after the test screenings, Lindsay Lohan's impressive but distracting bosom had to be digitally reduced in post-production. Evidently it was done somewhat haphazardly, as her chest rises and contracts from scene to scene, B-cup to D-cup to A-cup to C-cup. Herbie may be fully loaded, but Lindsay rarely is. Still, in those days, fluctuating embonpoint or not, Miss Lohan had one of those bodies the camera loves: spunky, freckly, leggy, lively, she seemed to exist to be filmed. I remember thinking even then that she appeared to be aging faster than she should, and I wondered how much of a career lay ahead. She turned herself into a joke, and then an unemployable one, and she will never be back. But ten years ago she had a natural ease on screen that many actors thrice her age never manage.