Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 03, 2006
These burrowing owls become the subject of an environmental flap in ‘Hoot.’
Starring Logan Lerman, Brie Larson, and Cody Linley. Written and directed by Wil Shriner, based on Carl Hiaasen’s novel. Rated PG.
Owl Be Seeing You

The Sunshine State is all that looks good in the worthy but failed Hoot.


Carl Hiaasen is not only a famous writer, but a famous Florida writer. He’s better than almost anyone at capturing the uniqueness of his home state in prose — the clash of Deep South and Caribbean cultures, the mix of natives and out-of-staters looking for a fresh start or a warm place to spend their last days, the hastily assembled government and civilization that has long attracted con artists and criminals of every stripe. What Kinky Friedman and Dan Jenkins are to our state, Carl Hiaasen is to his. His novels, along with the writings of Elmore Leonard and Dave Barry, are essential Florida literature. Hoot is a 2002 book that he wrote for young adults with enough character insight and odd story details to have made a terrific family film. Unfortunately, the movie version we’re getting isn’t it.

The movie’s narrated by Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman), a 13-year-old boy who’s frequently uprooted from schools and friends because of his dad’s Justice Department job. A fictional Florida town called Coconut Cove is the latest place that Roy lands, and he gets picked on by bullies, which is the lot of kids who change schools often. On some days while on the school bus, he sees a barefoot boy (Cody Linley) running as fast as he can down the sidewalk. His curiosity piqued, Roy one day follows the boy, who leads hiim to a cluster of burrowing owls — tiny birds that make their nests in abandoned gopher holes rather than in trees — on a construction site that’s due to be bulldozed to make way for a pancake house. It’s up to Roy to take a stand and save the endangered birds.

The first-time filmmaker tackling this material is Wil Shriner, a standup comic, actor, and tv host whose credits include a short-lived, ahead-of-its-time sketch comedy program that aired in 1987 under the title The Wil Shriner Show. The main thing he gets right in this picture is the atmosphere, which is no surprise given that the entire film was shot on location. Save for a brief stop in the steel-and-glass haven of downtown Miami, the movie keeps us in the partially developed terrain of central Florida, where wild swamps and well-kept golf courses are separated by just a few yards of underbrush. The strange animals running loose, the essential dinginess of the town’s public buildings, the blinding sunshine followed by days of rain, and, of course, the ever-present suffocating humidity all feel palpable on the screen. If your kids have never been to Florida, they’ll walk out of this movie with an excellent idea of what it’s like to live there.

The storytelling is where the film goes wrong. Hiaasen managed to pack his descriptions with lots of telling detail, often observed through Roy’s sharp eyes. While the scenes are economical and neatly turned, the languid feel of the setting is never sacrificed. Shriner can’t bring the same economy to his filmmaking. You get the point of each scene at least a minute before it ends, and the overall direction of the plot is easy to predict, as it wasn’t in the book. Roy’s encounters with the school bully (Eric Phillips) are repetitive, and the way in which Roy finally reveals the owls’ presence to the public is clumsy and contrived.

The young actors portraying the main characters are wrong, too. Lerman and Linley are both indistinct presences, and Brie Larson has the build but doesn’t have the assertiveness to play an athletic girl who initially comes off as a bully but turns out to be a driving force behind Roy’s effort to save the owls. The adult performers (including Scrubs’ Neil Flynn as Roy’s dad and Tim Blake Nelson as the construction site supervisor) aren’t particularly well-served either, and Clark Gregg chews the scenery relentlessly as the villainous vice president of the pancake house chain who wants to kill the birds. Pop singer Jimmy Buffett also surfaces as a friendly biology teacher and contributes some bland songs to the soundtrack.

Strangest of all for a movie directed by a professional comic, it isn’t that funny. The film gets most of its laughs from Hiaasen’s spicy wisecracks, but Shriner doesn’t display a great sense of timing behind the camera. He does show a hapless Coconut Cove cop (Luke Wilson) trying to maintain his professional demeanor while tooling around the city in a golf cart, but he needed to add more comic business like this to his script. If he had, Hoot wouldn’t have turned out so inoffensive and dull, and this family film would have been worthy of the book it was adapted from.

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