A Hole Lot of Fun
Although I haven't read Louis Sachar's Holes, a favorite novel among grade-schoolers, I feel certain the majority of its fans will love the movie based upon this Newbery Award-winning book. How do I know? Because at the screening I attended, I peered over my shoulder and saw kids watching the screen in amazement. They were seeing their beloved book being brought to cinematic life and loving every minute of it. I'll bet they couldn’t wait to start discussing differences between book and film when the picture ended. As for me, after viewing this unique film, I'm inspired to check out what Harry Potter’s competition in the literary world is all about.
Stanley Yelnats IV (“Even Stevens” star Shia LaBeouf) is the latest victim of his family’s rumored curse, cast by a gypsy who condemned all Yelnats men to suffer bad luck for eternity. Convicted of a crime he didn't commit (wrong place, wrong time), Stanley is shipped to Camp Green Lake, a desert detention center for “troubled youth.” Run by the feared warden (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistants, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and Dr. Pedanski (Tim Blake Nelson), Camp Green Lake takes kids in trouble and, as a way of “building character,” makes them dig one hole each day, five feet wide and five feet deep. As Stanley embarks on his term at Green Lake, making friends with fellow inmates such as Zero (Khleo Thomas), X-Ray (Brenden Jefferson), and the aptly-named Armpit (Byron Cotton), a parallel tale about Kissin' Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette) unfolds. Barlow, an 1800’s bandit who turned to crime as revenge for a lost love, is rumored to have stashed a treasure worth millions. Eventually, these two stories cross, and Stanley comes to realize that being forced to dig holes involves more significance than building self-discipline.
A family film as odd as Holes could stem only from the mind of Louis Sachar, author of the dementedly hilarious “Wayside School” book series. Sachar scripted the adaptation of his own book, and the result is a cluttered, somewhat deadpan, but original motion picture. The story is a collision of genres -- a drama, an adventure, a mystery, a comedy, and, in the Kissin’ Kate subplot, a romance. It also takes a peek at the power of obsession and an interracial relationship. Unfortunately, sometimes I found too much going on all at once. Still, I can see why the novel has worked its offbeat magic upon countless readers and will most likely do the same for moviegoers.
Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) lets the audience know he cares for the characters as much as he expects us to, blessing the film with a good pace barely disrupted, keeping up the story’s quirkiness, and establishing Camp Green Lake as a foreboding setting (loved the camp’s intro, a bird’s-eye-view shot of a vast desert covered with holes surrounding the tiny camp).
Holes builds solid ground to support its colorful characters, who are all well-drawn and never out of tune with the story. LaBeouf may be a bit one-note as Stanley, not displaying the charisma and excitement of his character on “Even Stevens,” but he does a good job as a kid who stumbles upon a secret or two. Weaver shines as the determined warden, a woman carrying a secret that has plagued her family for a hundred years or so. Jon Voight owns each scene he’s in, relishing every single moment while playing the slick, slimy, beer-gutted Mr. Sir. Tim Blake Nelson lends solid support as Pedanski, and I also liked the young actors portraying Stanley’s fellow inmates, especially Khleo Thomas as the quiet and misunderstood Zero. Patricia Arquette gives the only weak performance. She doesn’t make Kissin' Kate stand out like the other characters. Her work brings down the performance of her co-star in the Kissin’ Kate scenes, talented “West Wing” cast member Dulé Hill. Plus, although it’s great seeing Henry Winkler at work again (as Stanley’s wacky inventor father), I couldn't get it out of my head that this is "the Fonz" boiling shoes in his kitchen.
Holes is a different type of family film. With its great cast, fine direction, and quirky mentality, it offers a nice change of pace. It's definitely not hard to dig Holes.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures and rated "PG" for violence, mild language, and some thematic elements.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.