Friday, August 15, 2008

HOOT (2006): A Story About "Sense of Place" that Has No Place in My Heart

Nothing is more American than moving from place to place, wandering from city to city, and following the new job to the new state. America's history of movement into the "frontier" was the driving force behind Fredrick Jackson Turner's book about the American character. Americans, it can almost be said, are a people with no sense of permanency and no sense of "home." Almost, because though Americans seem to ever be seeking the greener valley just over the hill, they also create art that represents the longing for "place" central to the human condition.

The central conflict in HOOT is a young man's pursuit of permanency and his need to feel a sense of place. Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman) is a boy who has attended 6 schools in the past 8 years as his father's job with the Department of Justice has required frequent moves. Just as the family gets settled in a new location, just as Roy feels at home, they move again -- most recently from Montana to Coconut Grove, Florida.

The film is adapted from Carl Hiaasen's novel of the same name (HOOT was Hiaasen's first venture into writing for younger readers). In all of Hiaasen's novels, the setting is as important as any of the quirky characters his readers encounter. The same goes for HOOT.

Upon arriving in Coconut Grove, Roy encounters the stereotypical bully Dana Matherson (Eric Philips) who mashes Roy's face against the school bus window on the trip to school. It is this action that introduces one of two interesting characters in the film, a homeless and barefoot environmentalist middle-schooler named Mullet Fingers. The character's origin is as implausible as his name. While Mullet's character concept is quirky enough to be memorable, Cody Linley's performance in the role leaves one wishing they could forget the character. Roy also meets a bully-bashing girl named Beatrice (Brie Larson) who, as it turns out, just happens to be Mullet Fingers' step-sister. Larson's performance is mixed. Early in the film, her acting seems forced, but as the character develops in the narrative Larson displays the ability to capture the changes. These three characters, leaving the bully aside, don't become "fast friends," but as the adventure unfolds they do become friends.

The film is filled with many quirky characters, from Muckle (Clark Gregg) the sinister Southeastern Regional Manager of Mother Paula's All-American Pancake House to Delinko (Luke Wilson) the absentminded law enforcement officer. Gregg's performance makes the error made all too often in "children's movies," it's way to over the top. Luke Wilson, on the other hand, is solid. Wilson could have resorted to a Barney Fife style performance, but he holds back and the audience is rewarded with a couple of laughs -- desperately needed laughs.

In addition to the human characters, there are owls and the owls are in trouble. And this brings us to the conflict that moves the narrative along. Muckle wants to build a brand new Mother Paula's All-American Pancake House on a lot that includes homes of a number of families of burrowing owls. Roy, Beatrice, and Mullet Fingers take it upon themselves to fight against Muckle's destruction of the owl burrows. Mullet Fingers' preferred method of undermining the construction project is a series of pranksteresque that are supposed to dissuade the corporation from building on the site and that is where fun is supposed to ensue. Sadly, Mullet Fingers methods are as illogical as they are unfunny.

First, our environmentalist hero places a gator in the construction site's port-o-potty. That's right, in the chemicals -- chemicals that I would think at least mildly harmful to a two-foot long gator. Mullet then uses Cotton Mouth Water Moccasins to scare away guard dogs, by letting the snakes loose on the construction site...where the owls live. I don't know if releasing snakes into a field full of potential food is a good idea either. Needless to say, Mullet's ideas don't have the desired effect and the destruction of the burrows is going to take place anyway. That is until Roy, using the legal system, discovers that the Pancake company has altered their environmental impact report and that their construction is illegal. This knowledge will provide him the opportunity to save the owls, if only he can stop Muckle's bulldozer in time.

Wil Shriner, who has a great deal of television directing experience on some very good sitcoms and dramadies, seems a little out of his depth in his adaptation of the story. Shriner seems, like the middle of this review, too caught up in the "fun" of the pranksteresque attempts of Mullet Fingers and looses site of the real conflict here. The real story is that the owls and Roy are subject to the same conflict, displacement. Roy sympathizes, as the audience should, with the owls not merely because of environmental reasons (the law is already on his side), but because they are going to be uprooted like he has been 6 times in the past 8 years. This is a story about place and the value place has in our lives. If Roy can save the owls' home, maybe -- just maybe -- he can finally find a home. In a couple of sequences, Michael Chapman (the DP) captures the beauty of Coconut Grove, but these images are lost in the director's focus on the protest rather than on the longing to belong.

It's sad. There's a great story there somewhere, but in focusing on the external conflict -- the secondary conflict -- Shriner misses the opportunity to give his actors a chance to give real performances rather than pantomimes. Instead, audiences are left with a fairly standard children's movie. It's safe, it's mildly amusing, but it doesn't delight.

RATING: 2.5/5 Stars

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