`Holes' digs deep for lessons, laughs

Wacky subplots, pedantry bury fable's potential

Movie Reviews

April 18, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Holes, based on a beloved, award-winning children's book, is so faithful to its source that legions of schoolkids and their teachers will clasp it to their hearts. After all, it's a glorified set of illustrations that will extend, or at least not get in the way of, their original reading experience.

Those who come to the movie cold will find it an exasperating assembly of brutal pedantry and whimsies, boasting far less charm or grace than even the first Harry Potter picture.

It's partly a broad satire on teen boot camps: The hero, Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), unjustly convicted of stealing a celebrity athlete's sneakers, gets sent to a juvenile detention center where the heartless Warden (Sigourney Weaver) and her sadistic, clueless minions, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), supposedly build character by forcing kids to dig holes 5 feet deep in the desert.

The film swiftly becomes a time-hopping hodgepodge of lessons about tolerance, kindness and courage combined with sorcery and muckraking involving a Yelnats clan curse from the Old Country, the Warden's family history of racism and violence, and the fabled career of a schoolmarm turned bandit known as "Kissin' Kate" Barlow (Patricia Arquette).

Anyone can see the story's potential for a big-screen fable that's grittier, wilder and more emotionally satisfying than homogenized after-school specials. But the way Louis Sachar has adapted his own novel and Andrew Davis has directed it, the wacky subplots just spill out higgledy-piggledy and land on your head.

Numbed into submission, non-fans will try to enjoy details as exotic as poisonous yellow-spotted lizards and a paradisiacal onion patch. But patience wears away as the film laboriously fits each detail into a destiny that rewards the righteous and punishes the villains.

The comedy, such as the struggle of Stanley's father (Henry Winkler) to find a cure for athletic-shoe odor, falls as limp as a snapless cartoon; the melodrama, such as Stanley's perilous trek across the sands to save a puny outcast nicknamed Zero (Khleo Thomas), lacks even the ersatz, industrial-grade excitement of such Andrew Davis thrillers as The Fugitive.

Occasionally, by dint of his or her personal style, a performer lifts the film above the pedestrian: Arquette imbues Kissin' Kate with a harsh sweetness and Dule Hill of The West Wing has a dash that removes any taint of self-conscious do-gooding from the subplot about her doomed love for a black onion peddler. And when Weaver makes her typically skyscraping entrance 40 minutes in, she provides hope that she will whip the whole movie into shape. No such luck.

By the time kids out of Lord of the Flies abruptly start treating Stanley as if he were Cool Hand Luke, the picture has certified its own "failure to communicate."

Holes

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, Shia LaBeouf and Tim Blake Nelson

Directed by Andrew Davis

Released by Disney

Rated PG

Time 111 minutes

SUN SCORE * *

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