“Herbie: Fully Loaded” is Lindsay Lohan’s first movie since her breakthrough turn in last year’s Mean Girls. The interim has been filled with family drama, well publicized feuds with fellow teenybopper starlets (only recently relegated to the back pages in light of the Tom and Katie Merger), and endless “are they or aren’t they?” questions about the young woman’s bust. There’s been so much speculation about the composition of her breasts I’m expecting the USDA to step in at any moment.
But seriously, Lohan’s relative skill as an actor has set her earlier efforts apart from most of her contemporaries. This is akin to saying Coke C2 is more refreshing than Pepsi One, but still, she did a good job in both Freaky Friday and “Mean Girls.” “Herbie: Fully Loaded” is the first chance we get to see if Lohan can turn in a decent performance amidst a carnivalesque personal life that’s generated more column inches than any of her films.
As the credits roll, we’re treated to a highlight reel of Herbie (the Love Bug, for those born after 1982) in his past films. These ancient victories serve as a counterpoint for the sad state Herbie finds himself in at film’s open: slated for crushing in a rural junkyard. One can only ponder the horrendous calamity that befell the former owners of this once-proud racing champion (Dean Jones, Michele Lee, Ken Berry, Don Knotts, and Charles Martin Smith, to name a few) to prevent them from intervening, but that’s another screenplay, I guess.
Enter Maggie Peyton (Lohan), youngest member of the stock car racing Peyton clan, on the way to her college graduation. Maggie arrives at the ceremony on her skateboard, because that’s the kind of devil-may-care iconoclast she is. She’s set to kick around her old hometown for a month before heading to New York City to work for ESPN (Did you know Disney owns ESPN? What a coincidence.). Naturally, she’ll need a car. Her dad, Ray Peyton Sr. (Michael Keaton) – owner of the struggling Peyton Racing team – generously gives Maggie a handful of crisp twenty dollar bills for this purpose. After a series of breathtaking near catastrophes that will have everyone under the age of six wetting themselves in anxiety, Maggie ends up buying a certain junked-out 1963 VW Bug.
Realizing few Disney movies last longer than an hour and 45 minutes, Herbie acts quickly, engineering a reunion with high school acquaintance Kevin (Justin Long) and beating NASCAR champion Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) in a street race (with Maggie, her identity conveniently disguised in a vintage racing uniform, driving as “Max”). Trip has issues with losing, and puts together a sudden death racing tournament to defeat the mysterious “Max” and restore his lost manhood. Maggie faces a dilemma: accept Trip’s challenge and risk her father’s wrath (he’s forbidden her from racing), or deny her destiny and slink off the NYC with her tail between her legs?
That’s about it for conflict. Eventually, Maggie and Herbie find themselves entered in the Nextel Cup (courtesy of brother Ray Jr., who politely gets injured in a wreck right after his qualifying run). I’m not a racing fan, so I may be way off here, but I have to imagine NASCAR has rules against allowing a 40 year-old, 4-cylinder VW driven by someone with no track experience to race in one of their premiere events. This is Disney, however, where magic happens, and not only can a young girl hold her own with the likes of Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip (helpfully playing themselves), but she can actually beat them. Make no mistake, you’re not going to see a more slickly produced commercial for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing this year.
(Other ways to tell this movie is a Disney production: all the women at a hot rod show are wearing pants and all the guys in the stands at the race are wearing shirts.)
One other thing: I wanted to take the high road on all the digital breast reduction speculation, truly I did. I wanted to ignore all the attention focused on the subject and find other things to make fun of, but Disney doesn’t want to play it that way. Lohan’s rack (shrunken or not) is on display throughout, and when the plot seems to be steering us away from ogling it, director Angela Robinson bring us right back with shots of gratuitous bouncing or by actually having Herbie give her an “oil necklace” (no, really).
Granted, kids probably aren’t going to notice, and “Herbie: Fully Loaded” is a kids’ movie through and through. I don’t think I’ve seen anything this deliberately inoffensive in years. There’s no swearing, no violence, and one kiss sans tongue. Aside from the breasts, inserted along with the gratuitous racing footage for the benefit of fathers taking their children to the Saturday matinee, the film is depressingly wholesome. In that respect, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to distract the children of America from the horror of their eventual futures for a couple more hours.