Dir: Walt Becker. US. 2007. 99mins.

Four suburban buddies confront their mid-life crisis by hitting the highway in Wild Hogs, an extremely pedestrian road movie that sputters along in search of laughs. With much of the comedy coming from failed homo-erotic digs at male bonding, this ensemble piece features several bankable stars but takes mostly wrong turns.

Starring Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence, and William H Macy, the Disney film opens March 2 domestically, seeking to capitalise on the cumulative box office impact of its three main leads. But while Allen has enjoyed success in Disney family films such as the Toy Story and Santa Clause franchises, Travolta has mostly pursued dramas in the last 10 years, the one notable exception being 2005's middling commercial returns for Be Cool.

Lawrence demonstrated with last year's Open Season that he can attract family audiences outside of the Big Momma's House movies, while Macy adds a misleading sense of artistic integrity, known more for his choice of quality material than surefire hits.

With Norbit and Bridge To Terabithia receding, Wild Hogs will be the only major family offering for several weeks. That, coupled with its familiar actors and a plotline reminiscent of 1991's City Slickers, should ensure a clear theatrical road. But considering that none of the leads has had a movie eclipse $100m since summer 2003 (Lawrence's Bad Boys II), box-office expectations should remain modest.

When Wild Hogs expands into overseas territories through the spring, the actors' lack of recent international smashes will probably hamper the bottom line. Star power should prove most valuable in the DVD and cable markets.

Wild Hogs introduces us to four middle-aged friends living in staid Cincinnati: Woody (Travolta), bankrupt and separated from his wife; Dudley (Macy), a nerdy computer programmer too nervous to talk to women; Bobby (Lawrence), a henpecked plumber longing to write a book; and Doug (Allen), a bored family man nostalgic for his hell-raising youth.

All part of the same motorcycle club, they decide to take an impromptu road trip to California, hoping to find adventure and reclaim the personal freedom of their younger years.

Directed by Walt Becker, Wild Hogs shares a crass comedic tone with Becker's 2002 teen sex romp Van Wilder. In addition, Brad Copeland's screenplay tries to follow the rough outline of City Slickers - aging, disillusioned men find themselves by abandoning their comfortable lives and embracing the rugged demands of nature - but neglects the character relationships and amusing fish-out-of-water scenes, opting instead for an unimaginative episodic structure that favors pratfalls to furthering the men's relationship.

But the film truly embarrasses itself with its uncomfortably homophobic humour. Wild Hogs wants to mock its protagonists' dreams of reasserting their masculinity by undercutting the trip with situations in which their manhood is humiliated. That sort of wittiness would require a more sophisticated director than Becker to be executed properly.

Instead of lampooning the men's insecurity, Becker's frequent use of gay-themed gags demonstrates an unease with homosexuality that borders on intolerant. (The usually funny John C McGinley's portrayal of a gay highway patrolmen, complete with pronounced lisp, is especially cringe-worthy.)

The four main actors show very little genuine camaraderie, making it nearly impossible to believe that they're best friends. Only Macy, who has made his career as a character actor, manages to work well off his co-stars. The other three - used to having the spotlight to themselves - seem to be trapped in their own parallel films, operating in comedic vacuums.

Normally a likable presence, Travolta strains painfully to be hilarious, delivering his lines with desperate high energy in the hopes that being manic is the same thing as being funny.

Allen and Lawrence have an easier time, but Copeland hasn't given them great lines, and so they resort to old techniques to force humour out of humdrum scenarios. For Allen, it's his thwarted man's man schtick; for Lawrence, it's his crazy-black-guy routine.

As the director, Becker's main job seems to be wrangling the talent together and keeping them happy. The film has no comic energy or momentum; Becker can't even exploit the sleek, unfettered power that motorcycles exude, particularly when a group of them are careening down the freeway. Considering that the film's stars don't appear to be having much fun, Wild Hogs is a bum ride for all involved.

Production companies/backers
Touchstone Pictures
Tollin/Robbins Productions

US distribution
Touchstone Pictures

International Distribution
Buena Vista International

Mike Tollin
Brian Robbins
Todd Lieberman

Executive producers
Amy Sayres
Sharla Sumpter Bridgett

Brad Copeland

Robbie Greenberg

Christopher Greenbury
Stuart Pappe

Production design
Michael Corenblith

Teddy Castellucci

Main cast
Tim Allen
John Travolta
Martin Lawrence
William H Macy
Marisa Tomei
Jill Hennessy
Ray Liotta
Drew Sidora
John C McGinley