According to pop-culture conventional wisdom, the heterosexual male was once a proud creature that ran free across our fair land, like a mighty man-buffalo slathered in Old Spice. He was a veteran of one of the good wars, ideally World War II or at least Korea, and those experiences haunted him in ways he was too manly and stoic to ever reveal, to himself or anyone else. He wore a suit, tie, and cufflinks when he went to an office with a buxom secretary. He went golfing, told dirty jokes, and joined his buddies for thick, juicy steaks and martinis, or maybe some scotch. He pinched waitress’ asses and leered at strangers’ cleavage without fear of shame or consequences. He raised a family and died of a heart attack in his mid-60s. He hid his fear and vulnerability from the world, like his fathers before him.
By the time the surprise hit Wild Hogs—the United States’ 13th top-grossing film of 2007—rolled around, the once-mighty heterosexual American male had become a sad, constrained, emasculated beast, the equivalent of a once-fearsome and majestic brown bear reduced to wearing clown clothes and riding a tricycle in a low-rent circus. The film surveys four different breeds of American men in crisis.
Bobby (Martin Lawrence, who long ago lost his spark and now trudges through vehicles dead-eyed and devoid of life or hope), is mocked by his high-powered wife Karen (Tichina Arnold) for his aspiration of becoming a professional author, while his mother-in-law responds with a derisive, “It’s hard for kids to respect a man who don’t do none of the providing.” Bobby at least has the consolation that his mean, controlling wife, fearing that her no-good husband will be even more of a drain on his family than he already is, got him back his old job with “the firm.” But this brief promise of dignity dissipates with the revelation that “the firm” Karen speaks of is not, say, a law firm, but rather a plumbing company where Bobby spends his days elbow-deep in human waste. The revelation of the true nature of “the firm” is more dispiriting than comic; the entire first act of Wild Hogs is defined by wild oscillations between sitcom shenanigans and sour suburban sadness. The film laughs at its characters, tearing them down so it can build them back up.
Doug (Tim Allen) is the bread-winner of his home, but as a successful dentist, he, too, is emasculated by a world that constantly reminds him that he isn’t a physician or a surgeon, and is consequently a pathetic half-man. Doug’s son doesn’t want to play catch with him because he doesn’t think his dad is a good enough athlete, and his family expects him to stick to his diet when his birthright as an American man is eat undercooked steaks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, washed down by scotch and an entire chocolate cake. Sure enough, a deviation from his diet sends Doug to the hospital, where his supportive wife Kelly (Jill Hennessy) tells him he needs to loosen up and embark on a City Slickers-like quest to find his smile. (This is not to be confused with a City Slickers II-like quest to find Curly’s gold.)
Elsewhere, Woody Stevens (John Travolta) pretends to have it all together, but his supermodel wife is divorcing him, and he’s so broke, he angrily argues with a small child over the price of mowing his lawn. Woody pretends to have leverage in the battlefield we call earth, but he’s really nothing but a puny, rat-brained man-animal. Finally, Dudley (William H. Macy) can only dream of having a woman to divorce him, emasculate him, or gently encourage him to get his groove back. At a coffee shop, Dudley tries to impress an attractive woman by uttering “alternative specs” into his super-advanced voice-activated computer, only to have the computer misread his instruction as “alternative sex,” a search that leads quickly and inevitably to the geriatric-sex site grannylove.org. Despite being a computer programmer by trade, Dudley owns one of those curious machines, found only in lowbrow comedies, that refuse to shut down once sexually inappropriate material appears on them.
These four men are so beaten down by a world that expects them to worry about their cholesterol and interact with women that not even strapping on leather jackets with “Wild Hogs” emblazoned on the back and riding motorcycles wins them any respect. In their Ohio hometown, the men are laughed at as motorcycle-riding wusses. So they embark on a plan to reclaim their lost manliness.
Like Phil Pitzer in Easy Rider: The Ride Back, they head out on the open road with no cell phones, no rules, no nagging wives, and only a vague plan to drive to the West Coast looking for adventure and whatever comes their way. Along the way, the Wild Hogs tangle with biker gang The Del Fuegos, led by Jack Blade (Ray Liotta), and come to the aid of the small town of Madrid, New Mexico. (The diner built for the film was left intact after filming was completed, and is now a gift shop selling Wild Hogs and Del Fuegos souvenirs. So if you’re planning a worldwide quest to visit the most depressing tourist traps in the world, this should be on your list, followed by the Three Amigos-themed cantina in Cozumel, Mexico.)
Of the four leads, only Macy delivers a real performance, rather than mugging or coasting lazily on his persona, as his co-stars all do. He’s the funniest element of the film because he plays the role dramatically, as a strangely delightful man who lives in a different, more wonderful world than everyone else. Macy’s Dudley is also, not coincidentally, the only Hog who seems comfortable in his own skin. He’s the only character who isn’t a poser, who isn’t constantly pumped up with faux bravado or macho delusions. He’s also the only character comfortable enough in his masculinity to do things that might be considered feminine without immediately, angrily proclaiming his fierce heterosexuality.
For example, after crashing his bike early in the film, Dudley rides on the back of Woody’s hog, and Dudley sneaks a long, intense sniff of Woody’s manly musk. Woody is, of course, apoplectic. “If you ever put your head on my shoulder, I’ll throw you into traffic,” he angrily informs Dudley. But when Bobby asks him whether he girlishly smelled his friend’s neck, Dudley rhapsodizes without shame about how much he loves his friend’s cologne, like a teenaged girl in the first blush of puppy love. Later, at a swimming hole, Dudley dives in bare-ass naked because he views the human body as a beautiful gift from God, and not something gross and gay, as Travolta’s character does. His friends follow suit, but Woody only disrobes with the caveat, “I will get naked with my gay friends, and if any of them look at my junk, I will kill them.”
Wild Hogs is as obsessed with the prospect of gay orgies and man-on-man rape as a PG-13 family film released by a subsidiary of Disney can be. When the four Hogs are forced by the circumstances and stupidity of the script to sleep out at night on a single filthy mattress in a field, a police officer played by the great John C. McGinley overhears them moaning things like, “Boy, my ass is sore,” “It’s Woody’s fault for riding us so hard yesterday. The human body isn’t meant to straddle something for that long,” and, “Anybody want to explain to me why I’m in the dirt, when I got sore jaws from three hours of blowing?” Such statements would seem to imply that these four awkward, middle-aged gentlemen are referencing a vigorous, sodomy-filled orgy during which they violated each other’s orifices and spirits with reckless abandon. McGinley’s dirty mind leaps to places not generally seen outside the San Francisco bathhouses of the 1970s, and he wants in. Instead of arresting these men for having public sex, he lustily demands to be part of what he imagines to be the men’s traveling outdoor orgy.
Watching Wild Hogs, I got the sense that within this neutered family film there was an unspeakably awful, unconscionably offensive hard-R comedy waiting to break out. The entire production is charged with an intense anxiety about sexuality and masculinity that spills out in weird and discomforting ways, like a state-fair scene where a singer played by Kyle Gass performs songs like Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha” in a sexually suggestive, gender-bending manner. And when violence seems imminent at a biker bar where the Hogs make enemies of the fearsome Del Fuegos, Doug quips, “Does anybody else have that pre-rape feeling?” to which Jack Blade’s sidekick Red (Kevin Durand) responds eagerly, “I do.”
Later on, Jack Blade admiringly says of the Hogs, “Those assholes got balls,” to which Red eagerly adds, “That I’m gonna put in my mouth and chew on,” causing an unamused Jack to punch him in the face. Woody merely talks repeatedly about the violence he’ll commit if confronted with men trying to hit on him or steal a glimpse at his magnificent penis. Jack straight-up punches people when he imagines they might want to nibble on the testicles of other men. And of course, this film about the threatened masculinity of four middle-aged men on holiday from the domesticating influence of women-folk makes sure to reference Deliverance and show all the pasty male asses a film can get away with and still qualify as PG-13.
In between all the gay-panic jokes, friendships are strengthened, confidence is rebuilt, and masculinity is restored. After standing up to the bikers, Bobby gets the courage to stand up to his wife and politely request he be treated like a human being. Doug realizes that in the end, it’s the biker gang who are the real posers, and the Wild Hogs who are truly free. Doug comes to realize that his giant house, gorgeous wife, and thriving professional practice aren’t a prison of domesticity, they’re things that allow him the freedom to, say, go on an extended motorcycle ride with his friends.
That, I think, is the tacky, superficial, crowd-pleasing allure of Wild Hogs. It assured viewers that even though they might engage in the great American pastime of fantasizing about escape and the open road, their middle-to-upper-middle-class lives are actually infinitely more fulfilling. Wild Hogs reaffirms the supremacy of its audience’s way of life by making the open road seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Instead of a gauntlet of youthful, transgressive pleasures, the open road offers these unhappy men bikers who want to beat them up and cops who want to fuck them. If Wild Hogs makes life as a henpecked suburban male seem small and sad, it makes being an overgrown baby of a biker-gang cliché seem even smaller and sadder.
Still, within this stupid, phony, pandering movie there are scattered moments that hint at what might have been. More than once, Doug references his half-forgotten history as a guy who “used to get high a lot,” with a faraway look of abashed pride. These days, Tim Allen is better known for being on a hit family show for a million years than he is for being a convicted cocaine dealer, but every once in a while, a glimpse of that long-ago life Allen once led will slip into his work, and for a fleeting moment, threaten to make him interesting. That’s the case here. The painful yet tender way Allen utters the phrase “used to get high a lot” hints at a deeper, truer movie about a guy who traded in the seedy pleasures of partying for a cozier life, but still sometimes feels that hunger in ways that are difficult for him to understand or explain.
Wild Hogs isn’t that movie. It steers clear of anything resembling a harsh or complicated truth, and can only acknowledge that a character used to get high a lot if it doesn’t go into any further detail. Wild Hogs made a lot of money reassuring the men of America that even though they’re no longer free to harass secretaries with impunity, or drive giant, gas-guzzling cars with enormous fins, they’re still kings of the road and gods among men. Wild Hogs’ inability to believe its own message helps explain why it has failed to endure. The film was slated to have a sequel, but the disastrous critical and commercial performance of Old Dogs, which reunited Travolta with Wild Hogs director Walt Becker, doomed the planned follow-up.
Wild Hogs fans (or “Hoggalos,” as I’ve just decided they’re now known) needn’t despair, however. If history is any indication, this movie, which climaxes with an astonishingly clumsy, awkward appearance by Peter Fonda as Jack Blade’s disapproving biker-legend dad, will receive its follow-up several decades down the line, courtesy of Easy Rider: The Ride Back guru Phil Pitzer, who will be cryogenically frozen, then unthawed so he can produce, write, and star as the never-seen brother of Fonda’s character, and as Jack’s even cooler, even more badass uncle.
Up next: Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons