Disney’s apparently trying to cover all bases with this revival of the old “Love Bug” franchise, which started in 1969 and was last seen (on TV) in 1997. The script, credited to no fewer than five writers, aims to appeal to as many demographic segments of the audience as possible. There’s the Herbie connection for baby-boomer nostalgia buffs, of course. For tween girls, the car has to share the spotlight with Lindsay Lohan, one of their favorites, in a part designed both to cater to their incipient romantic impulses and show them that “gender barriers” can be broken. There’s also lots of NASCAR racing in the apparent (though probably forlorn) hope of attracting their brothers and dads, too. And then there are Matt Dillon and Michael Keaton to appeal to…well, whomever they might appeal to.
The result is, predictably, a mishmash of slapstick, action, romance, domestic comedy and feel-good feminist fantasy that will probably satisfy none of its targeted constituencies, particularly as it’s so flatly directed by Angela Robinson, who was earlier responsible for the screechingly unfunny “D.E.B.S.” (In that respect “Herbie” could use a heavier foot on the gas pedal.) Lohan plays Maggie Peyton, the daughter of a car-racing dynasty founded by her legendary grandfather and now headed by her loving father Ray (Keaton) and represented on the track by her dedicated but inept brother Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer). Maggie’s just graduated college and is shortly to move to New York to begin a career with ESPN. But her real love remains racing–a vocation her dad is dead set against because she’s the spitting image of his dead wife (and because she was once injured in a street race). So when Ray offers to buy her a car as a graduation present, he wants something safe and secure. That doesn’t jibe with the fact that to locate such a vehicle, he takes her not to a dealership or used car lot but to a junkyard, where they find the rusted-out Herbie and buy him/it. Fixing up the magical heap brings Maggie back in touch with her old racing buddy (and obvious admirer) Kevin (Justin Long), a mechanic, and when the mind-of-his-own Bug literally carries the unwilling Maggie to a win in a street race against arrogant, nasty NASCAR champ Trip Murphy (Dillon), the victory sets up a whole series of contests in which, disguised as a guy named Max to keep what she’s doing from disapproving dad, she and Herbie defeat a slew of other competitors to earn a rematch with the preening pro. There has to be some big obstacle to her ultimate success in act three, of course, and the one that’s concocted here is a multi-part affair, involving not just Maggie’s obtuseness in betting Herbie against Trip’s car and a silly demolition show but an accident that sends Maggie into the championship race instead of Ray Jr. (There’s a moment during the race when Keaton is shouting “You can do it!” to his daughter, and you half-expect him to turn into Rob Schneider.) But in the end the movie naturally celebrates not just her inevitable victory, thereby assuring us that girls can successfully compete against guys in any forum, but also the virtues of trust and friendship (as well as restoring Herbie’s traditional matchmaking role as far as Maggie and Kevin are concerned).
Throughout all the nonsense Lohan is her usual perky self (though the use of doubles in many of her skateboarding scenes is glaringly apparent, especially in the from-the-waist-down shots), and the half-geeky, half-handsome Long (from “Jeepers Creepers” and “Dodgeball”) makes an ingratiating partner for her. Dillon is a good sport about accepting humiliation, but this is a major comedown from “Crash” for him, while Keaton essays another of his take-the-paycheck-and-run supporting roles as a nice, laid-back father (see also “First Daughter”). One must feel especially sorry for Meyer, playing a hopeless part as a slapstick goof who turns into a considerate sibling. Technically the picture’s okay, though it must be said that from the contemporary perspective, the visual effects are pretty primitive.
This is one of those movies that’s just chock full of product placement blurbs, not just for ESPN and NASCAR but for everything advertised on those moving billboards called race cars. My favorites are Trip’s bomb, which splashes the Cheetos brand across the screen every time in appears, and the briefly-seen competitor emblazoned with the word “Viagra.” Now there’s a combination to make you squeamish.
As for the titular Bug, who’s humorously depicted in one of the lamer subplots as having eyes for a newer Volkswagen, at forty-plus he could probably use some of that medicine himself. He seems a rather tired old jalopy here, and “Herbie: Fully Loaded” comes off as one time too many around the track.