Monday, December 5, 2011

Herbie Rides Again (1974) & Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977)

          It doesn’t speak well of American culture that the biggest domestic box-office hit of 1969 wasn’t Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Midnight Cowboy or Romeo and Juliet. No, the top grosser was Disney’s The Love Bug, a ridiculous special-effects comedy about an anthropomorphized Volkswagen Beetle that plays matchmaker for two unsuspecting humans. Starring the amiable Dean Jones and the grating Buddy Hackett, The Love Bug makes almost every other live-action Disney flick seem sophisticated by comparison. Given this success, its odd the Love Bug back didn’t hit the road again until 1974, when Herbie Rides Again was released.
          The second time around, the hero is not Jones’ racecar-driver character, but instead Willoughby Whitfield (Ken Berry), the nebbishy nephew of cutthroat real-estate developer Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn). Hawk wants to demolish an old firehouse occupied by widow Mrs. Steinmetz (Helen Hayes), so he sends Willoughby to sweet-talk the old lady. This puts Willoughby at odds with the widow’s spunky granddaughter, Nicole (Stefanie Powers), and the widow’s even spunkier VW, Herbie. (Mrs. Steinmetz is the mother of Hackett’s character from the original movie.) Herbie Rides Again is laborious and tiresome, with idiotic scenes like Herbie driving up the rails of the Golden Gate Bridge while an oblivious Mrs. Steinmetz sits behind the wheel, focused on her grocery list. The only memorable sequence is Hawk’s trippy nightmare vision of armies of Herbies attacking him, some flashing gaping “mouths” lined with sharp teeth, others dressed like Indians and tossing Tomahawks that scalp poor Alonzo. Berry, Hayes, and Powers are likeable, and Wynn is appropriately cartoonish, but the stupidity factor is almost unbearable.
          Things don’t get much better in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, for which Jones resumes leading-man duties. The filmmakers overlook the fact that Jones got married at the end of the first picture, since he’s inexplicably single, and they never explain why he’s got a new best friend/mechanic, Wheely Applegate (Don Knotts). Nonetheless, he heads to Europe for a racetrack comeback in the cute little VW with the “53” on the side. The plot thickens when jewel thieves hide a stolen diamond inside Herbie’s gas tank and when Herbie falls in love with a sexy Italian sportscar. Veteran British thesps Bernard Fox and Roy Kinnear try valiantly to make their slapstick scenes as the bumbling crooks work, but the lifeless script renders their efforts futile. Worse, the long scenes of Herbie courting the sportscar seem creepy after a while, since the vehicles do everything short of consummating their attraction. The moronic plot also calls far too much attention to the imponderables of just how self-aware Herbie really is; since the car drives itself for most of the movie, what purpose, exactly, does Jones’ character serve during the big race?
          Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo did well enough to justify a final sequel in the franchise’s original run, 1980’s Herbie Goes Bananas (without Jones), plus a short-lived TV series in 1982 (with Jones). The spirited VW returned yet again in 2005, when Lindsay Lohan starred in Herbie: Fully Loaded.

Herbie Rides Again: LAME
Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo: LAME

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