The question that needs to be asked about "Wild Hogs," the shamelessly broad middle-age-crazy biker comedy opening today, is this: Can William H. Macy pull Tim Allen up to "Fargo" level, or will Tim Allen drag William H. Macy down into "Christmas With the Kranks" perdition?
It's a draw, actually, with John Travolta and Martin Lawrence refereeing. The unlikely quartet -- more a pick-up golf game than a cast -- play four friends on a cross-country motorcycle road trip, and a sorrier, saggier lot you won't find. The movie is this year's "RV," a rolling tent show of suburban male anxieties: castration, obsolescence, dismissive offspring, fears of gayness. Lots of fears of gayness. Unlike "RV," though, "Wild Hogs" is funny. Eventually.
Allen is Doug, a onetime free-riding stoner now trapped in the body of a middle-aged Cincinnati dentist, with obnoxious son (Dominic James) and understanding spouse (Jill Hennessy). Lawrence is Bobby, a plumber and wannabe novelist with a two-dimensional harpy of a wife (Tichina Arnold).
Macy is Dudley, a gentle, addled computer geek who doesn't know how swish he acts (the actor plays this strange notion straight, as he must). Travolta is Woody, a high-powered lawyer whose life has fallen apart and who persuades the others -- weekend rebels like himself -- to chuck it all and drive to the West Coast.
And so their tent catches fire and the boys have to share a sleeping bag and get woken up by a glowering motorcycle cop (John C. McGinley , strappingly amusing) who's a butch closet case himself, wouldn't you know. Or they go skinny-dipping and are interrupted by a wholesome family terrified by the idea of four grown men naked. At times "Wild Hogs" seems less of a comedy and more like bizarre confessional therapy for writer and sitcom veteran Brad Copeland and director Walt Becker ("Van Wilder"). Or maybe this is what a few decades of gay pride has wrought: nervous-nellie straight-guy slapstick that protesteth far too much.
The movie's on safer ground with standard gags like bugs splatting on helmets, and it takes a satisfying turn when the Hogs roll into a New Mexico biker bar lorded over by Ray Liotta, who combines his "Something Wild" psycho act with that scary giggle from "Goodfellas." His gang, the Del Fuegos, are the "real deal," to quote Bobby, and after a few mishaps the Wild Hogs are fleeing this mob's assembled fury. Where's Pee-wee Herman to dance to "Tequila" when you need him?
The four take refuge in a desert town, the kind of place where Marisa Tomei is a diner owner named Maggie and the veteran character nerd Stephen Tobolowsky plays the sheriff. At this point "Wild Hogs" turns into "The Wild One" meets "High Noon" on the set of "Northern Exposure," and truth be told, the results are pretty engaging for a stu-com. A cameo appearance by a biker-movie icon who's been popping up a lot lately seals the deal.
The stars have settled into their roles by now, and each earns his designated chuckle (except for Allen, who's just not blandly smug for once). Dudley turns out to be straight, so we can all sleep soundly on that one. More to the point, the jokes somehow get an extra quarter-turn, and with the increased comic torque, the movie fires better.
"Wild Hogs" wants to be as dumb as they come, but there are smart people involved no matter how hard they try to hide it. The film's a bumptious weekend ride: The engine could use tuning and the plugs are shot, but it gets you most of the way there.