The Dukes of Hazzard

2005dukesMovie review by Greg Carlson

Another questionable TV series turned feature, the big screen “Dukes of Hazzard” arrives in theatres likely to draw the coveted young male demographic. With its attention span-deprived plotting and its healthy doses of fast cars and attractive young women, the film remains surprisingly faithful to its small screen counterpart, which ran on CBS from 1979 to 1985. Despite the objections of actor Ben Jones, who played the original TV Cooter, the new feature is nearly harmless, and it would be a close call to say which of the two versions deserves the crown for stupidity.

Penned by John O’Brien, who applied the same kind of updating to “Starsky & Hutch,” “The Dukes of Hazzard” is content to stick with its redneck milieu, quickly sketching a weak crisis about saving Uncle Jesse’s farm from the clutches of Boss Hogg. Director Jay Chandrasekhar, of Broken Lizard, is certainly no Preston Sturges, but he knows his way around comedy, and “Dukes” delivers laughs in at least half of its attempts. The well-loved roles are appropriately filled (the one exception being M.C. Gainey’s particularly nasty rendering of Rosco P. Coletrane, which lacks the bumbling charm first brought to the part by James Best).

Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott play Luke and Bo Duke, “cousins closer than brothers” who run moonshine in their bright orange Dodge Charger, the General Lee. Elevating inanity to levels approaching the central duo in “Dumb and Dumber,” there is no gag too idiotic, no line too infantile for the hillbilly pair. Jessica Simpson, to much fanfare, pulls on the Daisy Dukes, but despite the hard work she put in with a dialogue coach and a personal trainer, comes across as a mostly blank Barbie whose sole function is to employ her sexuality to wiggle Bo and Luke out of tight spots with the law.

The sometimes clever casting extends to include Willie Nelson as a wisecracking Uncle Jesse (i.e., Q: “Why are divorces so expensive?” A: “Because they’re worth it”) and Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg. Given the sorry state of the screenplay, Nelson’s part proves the more fun of the two, and the legendary songwriter navigates it with sleepy-eyed comfort. The movie naturally provides Nelson with a marijuana gag – an easy laugh, but typical of the fare this movie has to offer. Of the supporting players, Kevin Heffernan also manages to grab a few chuckles as Sheev, a dim-bulb buffoon who comes to the aid of the Duke boys as a kind of surrogate Cooter. The underrated David Koechner, playing Cooter, does not get as much screen time as Heffernan but should – he is always very funny.

Not much is done in the way of retooling the spinning tires, barroom fisticuffs, and flaming arrows that defined the original series, but a road trip to Atlanta provides the movie with a hollow opportunity to excuse itself for keeping the Confederate flag emblem on the roof of the General Lee. Perplexed by the reactions of passersby (ranging from angry gestures to hearty endorsements) during a traffic jam, Bo and Luke play innocent. Far from turning into a referendum on racist remnants of the Civil War, “The Dukes of Hazzard” is quite content to put its pedal to the metal to get back where it belongs: a dusty road rally that concludes with a feel-good, celebratory barbecue.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/8/05.

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