Some people may dispute Herbie’s sexuality, but I maintain he’s straight.
— Angela Robinson, Indiewire (25 March 2005)
You can take the car out of the junkyard but you can’t take the junkyard out of the car.
— Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), Herbie: Fully Loaded
Lindsay Lohan is getting lots of mileage out of her paparazzi-car-crash story. It’s her favorite story to tell while she’s sashaying from talk show couch to talk show couch to flack her new movie, Herbie: Fully Loaded. That, and the other story, the one about how she spent real time learning to drive a real NASCAR racer for the film. Whether or not you believe any angle of Lohan’s ever new image, she’s certainly learned how to recycle, a very useful skill in her chosen profession.
Herbie the car cycled and recycled through a few sequels in his time, following his breakout in 1968’s The Love Bug. Now, though, he’s looking strained, and not just because he’s a 1963 Volkswagen left to rust in a junkyard. Herbie first appears on screen in a series of “vintage” images from the olden days: Herbie speeding, Herbie careening, Herbie astounding. Following the credits, he’s relegated to a junkyard, where he awaits the arrival of Lohan’s character, Maggie Peyton. A brand new college graduate, Maggie is already bristling under pressure by her NASCAR star father, Ray (Michael Keaton), who wants her to head off to NYC for the glitzy ESPN job she’s secured (at least partly on the basis of his name). But Maggie’s not looking to do the girly thing. She wants to drive racecars.
This despite her father’s proclamation that she will never drive, following a years-ago street racing accident in which she totaled her car. He thinks she looks like her dead mother; he doesn’t want to risk losing her, and yes, this is all sounding a lot like the plot of Racing Stripes, only with cars instead of farm animals and a zebra. At any rate, Maggie’s brother Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer) is the family’s designated professional driver, even though he doesn’t even want to continue the Peyton legacy (granddad was a champion as well). Ray Jr. is losing, Ray Sr. is losing endorsements, and Sally (Cheryl Hines), the team’s apparent endorsement
Maggie’s graduation present throws a wrench in everyone’s plans. When she and Ray visit the junkyard, she’s spotted by Herbie, a 1963 Beetle with metal flaps on his headlights and a flexible bumper that grant him “expressions” (in 1968, this technology seemed new, now, it’s just not). Herbie’s point of view shots of Maggie seem vaguely lascivious, but perhaps this is just a function of the “personality” he goes on to display so rambunctiously. He picks out Maggie, it appears, because Herbie wants to race. With Maggie at the wheel but not exactly steering, Herbie wangles his way into a street race with egotistical NASCAR superstar Trip (an appropriately hammy Matt Dillon), which he wins against considerable odds (Trip drives a tricked-out racecar, even on the street).
Embarrassed by the loss, Trip sets up a rematch, for which Maggie and her mechanic Kevin (Justin Long) rebuild Herbie. Their prep means she has to lie to Ray, who still hopes that Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer), who doesn’t like racing, will continue the family’s legacy. Thus, multiple tensions are set: Maggie and Herbie vs. Trip, Maggie vs. her dad, Ray Jr. vs. Ray Sr., and Ray Sr. against the clock, as his sponsors are pulling out because his team is not winning. Trip’s eventual efforts to undermine Herbie lead to the very depressed and abandoned-felling bug’s engagement in a demolition derby where he’s smashed up by a monster truck before Maggie shows up to inspire him (“You can do it, Herbie!”).
Herbie’s resurrection by Angela (D.E.B.S.) Robinson makes these various situations seem also like “drag” scenarios (Street Racer Herbie, Demolition Derby Herbie, and NASCAR Herbie). While the movie focuses on the Maggie-Herbie relationship, each is also assigned a species-appropriate partner too: she likes Kevin; he likes a yellow bug driven by Sally (who is, in turn, Ray Sr.’s object), an attraction signaled by an erect antenna. Still, as Maggie notices early on, this yellow number seems “too young” for Herbie. Isn’t he, like, 42?
But for all this pretense toward plot, really, Herbie‘s point is NASCAR and commercial tie-ins, including prominent logos during race scenes (Cheetos, Home Depot, Netzero, Tropicana), human product placement (pro drivers like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson), and in promotional spots, Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick. The girl power promotions have recently gone into a kind of tailspin on both fronts. While Lohan has tried to look busy with Matt Lauer and Letterman and Star Jones — who all say they think she looks fine, by the way — word leaked that she “stormed out” of a premiere screening when she learned that Disney had moved her soundtrack single until the end (“Nobody stays to hear the song in the closing credits”). For her part, Patrick’s gone public with her own umbrage at Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone’s “congratulatory phone call” suggestion that “women should be all dressed in white like all other domestic appliances.” Put together, both incidents only make the film’s feminism-lite seem more bizarrely urgent and silly at the same time.