Movie review: 'Holes'

2 stars (out of 4)

How does a movie called "Holes" manage to have no center? That's one mystery this adaptation of Louis Sachar's popular older-kids novel doesn't address.

The movie is all over the place, jumping around in time, place and tone. I haven't read the novel, but Sachar adapted it himself as a first-time screenwriter, and it plays like the author tried to cram in as much of the book's multileveled plot as possible. Someone, probably director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive," "Collateral Damage"), should have told him that movies tend not to be kind to novels' multiple subplots. Incidents don't register emotionally if you haven't had a chance to get to know the characters, so more becomes less.

The main story here involves a palindrome-named boy, Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf of the Disney Channel's "Even Stevens"), shipped off to a teen work camp in the desert after being wrongly accused of stealing designer sneakers that somehow dropped from the sky. But the movie also spends time with Stanley's goofy scientist father (Henry Winkler), who is striving to find a way to make smelly sneakers odor-free. We never see the dad as more than a cartoonish side character, so we don't care whether he succeeds - we just think he's dorky.

Plus, there are flashbacks to the mysterious Madame Zeroni (Eartha Kitt), who cursed the Yelnats four generations earlier, as well as the saga of an Old West bandit named Kissin' Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette), who has her own back story involving an interracial love affair with a handyman (Dule Hill) in the days of lynching. Camp Green Lake is fully populated as well, with Sigourney Weaver playing the tough and sexy Warden, Jon Voight as the blustery enforcer Mr. Sir, Tim Blake Nelson as the cutting Dr. Pendanski, and a campful of teens with nicknames such as Squid, Armpit, ZigZag and Zero.

With the movie's attentions spread so thin, almost everything begins to seem peripheral - even if almost every loose end is tied together, no matter how unlikely the connection.

Stanley and his campmates spend all day digging perfectly round holes in a desert, the stated theory being, "You take a bad boy, make him dig holes all day in the hot sun, you turn him into a good boy." But the hole-digging's purpose isn't just to make the desert look like it's suffering from an exotic skin disease when viewed from overhead, as in the movie's niftiest visual. The Warden has a secret reason to keep them shoveling.

Stanley is a regular-Joe kind of guy thrown in with a diverse group of teens who initially shun him but in most cases warm up to him. The true outcast is a short, frizzy-haired boy named Zero (Khleo Thomas), whom Stanley befriends. He's one of those kids you know never to underestimate in movies like this; although the mean doctor and some kids call him dumb because he can't read, he has reserves of other strengths.

The movie is so wound up in legends and curses that you expect magic to play a significant role in the story. Davis encourages such thinking, what with sneakers falling out of the sky and the scenery shifting like cards being randomly shuffled. But magic in this case is a euphemism for massive coincidences.

While Davis has proven himself a skilled action director, his handle on lighter fare is shakier. His worst film, 1995's "Steal Big, Steal Little," was a sprawling, whimsical, hot-sun fable that played out incoherently. "Holes" isn't as much of a mess as that film - the performances are more consistent, the main characters more appealing - but it's similarly unfocused.

The opening, for instance, involves a boy putting his leg in the path of an angry rattlesnake in what could be a bad acid flashback from "The Doors." Why does the kid do this? Foolishness? Mystical impulse? Turns out it doesn't matter - the scene is just there to establish that the camp has a vacancy; we never hear from the boy again. Wouldn't the mere fact of Stanley's arrival make clear that the camp has an opening?

Fans of the book may defend the inclusion of so many incidents, but this is a kids' movie, so the spotlight should shine brightly on the main kid, Stanley. As portrayed by the wiry LaBeouf, we like him. The other characters are fine on their own, too, and individual scenes boast the right Disney adventure-story qualities.

But these many parts don't add up to much more than your basic "you meddling brats" dynamic of kids thwarting corrupt adults. Storybook myths, racist violence and foot odor are an awful lot to pile onto a tale about kids shoveling holes in the desert, and by the end, the movie can't dig itself out.

"Holes"
Directed by Andrew Davis; written by Louis Sachar, based on his novel; photographed by Stephen St. John; edited by Tom Nordberg, Jeffrey Wolf; production designed by Maher Ahmad; music by Joel McNeely; produced by Mike Medavoy, Davis, Teresa Tucker-Davies, Lowell Blank. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday, April 18. Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: PG (violence, mild language, some thematic elements).
The Warden - Sigourney Weaver
Mr. Sir - Jon Voight
Dr. Pendanski - Tim Blake Nelson
Stanley - Shia LaBeouf
Sam - Dule Hill
Kissin' Kate Barlow - Patricia Arquette

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