Theatrical Releases

May 09, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

This was supposed to be the weekend of Speed Racer - or at least that's how it looked a few months ago. May was supposed to be neatly compartmentalized. First weekend: Iron Man. Second weekend: Speed Racer. Third weekend: Prince Caspian. Fourth (Memorial Day) weekend: Indiana Jones and the Too-Long Name. Fifth weekend: Sex and the City. Looking at things from a closer perspective, it appears that Speed Racer isn't going to hold up its end of the bargain, resulting in Iron Man claiming the Box Office Champion badge for a second weekend in a row. It won't be three-for-three, however. Narnia, regardless of whether it's good or bad, has enough magic to knock the superhero into second place.

So why is Speed Racer unlikely to win the race? The simple answer would be that it's not very good but, when it comes to summer blockbusters, that's not a realistic explanation. Instead, this is a movie without an audience (or at least without a large audience). While the style and ADD-friendly race sequences might seem like the kind of things that would appeal to children, the lengthy, exposition-riddled dead spots will cause restlessness and the 135-minute running time will prove to be insurmountable in many cases. Keeping kids seated and quiet for the 90-minute length of a Disney movie can be a challenge (depending on the youngster); try multiplying that length by 1.5. Speed Racer is a cult movie. It just happens to have cost and lot of money and was foolishly positioned as a would-be summer blockbuster. The film is going to get favorable reviews from those viewers who are "into" this kind of thing. But it doesn't work for everybody (including me). In fact, it won't work for most people. The problem: while the visuals are disorienting and exhilarating for a while, once you get past the opening euphoria, there's nothing left except two hours of dull cinema. Contrary to what one might expect from the name, Speed Racer is slow going.

Counterprogramming comes from a romantic comedy for the second week in a row. Last week, Made of Honor stared down Iron Man and got blown away. This week, it's What Happens in Vegas, which will probably do as well. If one assumes the same number of people will go to multiplexes this weekend as did last weekend, the May 2-4 Iron Man audience will probably be split about 55/45 between those who go back for another dip in the superhero pool and those who brave Speed Racer, leaving the Made of Honor audience to venture into the Cameron Diaz/Ashton Kutcher rom-com. More people will watch Patrick Dempsey on TV this week than in movie theaters. What Happens in Vegas is a more enjoyable experience than Made of Honor but it has problems, especially during the early-going.

So what's a critic to do when it comes to making a Pick of the Week when there's nothing new that's worthwhile? Fall back on Iron Man again. Hey, Robert Downey Jr. is worth seeing a second time. That's exactly what a lot of teenage boys and older men will be doing this weekend. Women and girls might give it a shot, too, since it's got more going for it than the average superhero movie.

Next week: Aslan roars again as The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian opens unopposed. But the guy in the fedora is just around the corner, coiling the whip to strike.