Some years ago, political satirist Mark Russell observed that guys caught in mid-life crises tended to handle them in one of three ways: They bought motorcycles, cheated on their wives, or became spies for the Soviets. He wound up his routine with, “So the next time a middle-aged guy passes by you on a fire-engine-red motorcycle, smile and give him the thumbs-up sign! Because he’d rather break his neck than commit treason or adultery.”

This joke is funnier and truer than anything in the crashingly unfunny middle-aged-guys-with-motorcycles picture Wild Hogs. For all of you who saw the trailer for this film and thought it looked bad, the actual movie is far worse. It’s not the worst comedy of the new year (that would be Norbit), it’s not even the worst motorcycle movie in the last month (that’s Ghost Rider), but, man, it stinks like, well, a wild hog. The setup is exceedingly simple, not that it needs to be complicated. John Travolta, William H. Macy, Martin Lawrence, and Tim Allen star as four buddies from Cincinnati who share a common love for motorcycles. When their boring jobs get to be too much for them, they decide to take a road trip to California on their bikes.

The first thing that’s wrong is this cast. None of the actors manages to be funny in and of themselves, or bring anything funny out of each other. Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping that the Travolta-Allen dynamic would yield something similar to the Tom Hanks-Allen teaming in the Toy Story movies, with Allen’s stolid machismo playing off his co-star’s whiny neurosis. Well, it doesn’t work. With the exception of Macy, the cast members overact relentlessly, Travolta emerging as the worst offender. Even if they didn’t, though, they’d likely be defeated by the material. First-time screenwriter Brad Copeland has a sterling list of credits writing for television (My Name Is Earl, Arrested Development), so it’s especially odd how insipid this script is. The characters are barely sketched in, and the standoff between the main characters and a gang of outlaw bikers (led by Ray Liotta) terrorizing a sleepy New Mexico town makes for a weak climax.

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What else? There’s an insulting lapse into stereotype when a gay highway patrolman (John C. McGinley, chewing scenery to compete with the rest of the cast) mistakes the four guys for two couples. The slapstick gags are predictably staged, and the music choices on the soundtrack are equally easy to see coming — you can start your betting pool right now on when AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” comes on. Just as you’re thinking that this movie doesn’t hold a candle to a classic motorcycle flick like Easy Rider, one of the stars of that film appears at the end to sully whatever fond memories you might have of it. When you think about it, that’s pretty much the perfect way to cap this depressing exercise. Whatever you think of middle-aged motorcycle enthusiasts, they don’t cut nearly as embarrassing a figure as the middle-aged stars of Wild Hogs.

 Wild Hogs
Starring Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy, and John Travolta. Directed by Walt Becker. Written by Brad Copeland. Rated PG-13.