If you need any proof that Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg are BFF, just watch one of their movies. Thus far their three major titles-Superbad, Pineapple Express and now The Green Hornet–are all built up from a premise along the lines of, “so there are these two guys…” This is a charming conceit at first. Certainly in the case of those first two films the bromance was both the glue of the story and the vehicle for developing its two main characters. Meanwhile, it can actually be really sweet watching two regular dudes realize they have real love for another person. This formula had to lose its edge at some point though, and it seems to have happened smack dab in the middle of The Green Hornet.
Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), as shown very overtly by a loud, belligerent, hotel-trashing party right at the front of the film, is going nowhere. Despite, or perhaps due to the immense wealth and estate of his newspaper mogul father, James (Tom Wilkinson), Britt is a hedonist fool with no real awareness of or obligation to the world around him. When James dies abruptly from a bee allergy, and Britt is presented suddenly with the opportunity to carve out his own legacy, he chooses to do so in the most conspicuous way possible: by becoming a twilight vigilante and trying to bring down Los Angeles’ operating crime-lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). Though Britt himself is entirely devoid of skills, his father’s body-man Kato (Jay Chou) is an amalgam of Jackie Chan, MacGuyver and the Flash, and takes care of all the heavy-lifting. With mostly reckless luck, the two men somehow find celebrity as the city’s new top criminals, and throw down with Chudnofsky and his army of generic goons.
It was always hard to gauge what this film was going to be, having gone through so many cast and crew changes. Even when the final headliners were announced (Director Michel Gondry, Rogen & Goldberg, Chou, Waltz), this thing was still a head-scratcher. I mean, you have two guys who have thus far done exclusively low-brow comedy, a director famous for his music videos, a Taiwanese superstar who nobody’s ever heard of, and a guy who just got a massive break playing a charming Nazi. This is a motley crew to be sure. Seeing those names altogether, I sort of expected Michel Gondry to be the one who would make all these pieces adhere, and to be clear, despite my opinion of the film, I don’t think my faith in Gondry was misplaced. I do, however, think that he had less to do with the final product than Writers/Executive Producers Rogen and Goldberg. A Gondry show is bright and colorful and bizarre and new, and I can think of two moments in the film that recall real Michel Gondry. Two! Meanwhile there’s no shortage of half-jokes and Seth Rogen charming himself. Perhaps it’s the scale of production that scared Gondry away from using his bag of tricks, or the script simply didn’t lend itself, but if I’m going to a movie directed by Michel Gondry it would be nice if it felt like one.
It’s not that the Rogen/Goldberg script is bad, so much as it’s sloppy. The humor is there, to be sure (in particular the Sleep-Gun bit featured in the trailer is veritably clever and hilarious), but these two writers seem to have gotten a bit caught up in their own hype. This story is slip-shod, with certain characters thrust recklessly into the plot and relationships formed awfully quick. The inconsistency of character can be seen when comparing the sort-of-likeable, but apparently psychopathic Chudnofsky with the obnoxious and stupid Britt Reid. To be fair, it’s hard to draw a line between Britt Reid’s unlikability and Seth Rogen’s, but shouldn’t the protagonist have some redeeming qualities? Or at least be likable outside of his occasionally hilarious one-liners? This may be my biggest problem with Rogen and Goldberg: their utter devotion to making their main character-and interestingly, nearly always the character that Rogen plays-an asshole. Though they always attempt to redeem that asshole through a rekindled bromance, it somehow seems never enough and I end up watching a movie about a guy I don’t like.
While I’m already beating up on the guy, I may as well call attention to the fact that Seth Rogen really isn’t much of an actor. He’s not talentless, and works particularly well in an improv-driven Apatow production, but here, where improv seems more or less nonexistent, and he’s set up across from a non-English speaker leaving Rogen to carry most of their scenes, his lack of skill is really evident. So evident that if Jay Chou weren’t so clearly struggling with his lines, he would easily best Rogen’s performance. Everything Chou does aside from speaking is pretty amazing, and it’s nearly impossible to tell exactly where Kato ends and Chou begins. Still, it’s Christoph Waltz and his 15 minutes of screen time that steal the show. As an insecure and stodgy psychopath Waltz is funny and creepy, and again, somehow likable. Waltz needs to play a nice guy, if for no other reason than he always comes off as one anyway.
Maybe it’s a good thing for Rogen and Goldberg to be taken down a peg or two. These guys have had nothing but success their entire career together, and they’ve gotten a little brash. While humor is a mostly inherent skill, things like character development and three-act structure and, even coherency, are not. It takes more than being funny to be great, and part of me does want Rogen and Goldberg to be great. Though a bit one-note and apparently caught up in themselves, these guys are smart and hilarious. Now that they’ve come to a point in their careers where they can essentially set their own course, it would be great if they got serious about this whole writing thing. Very few truly great scripts have been lucked into.