A glossy, good-looking comedy-thriller about a devoted young couple who dream of Hawaiian splendor but are stuck in the sweltering desert, “Under the Hula Moon” is a lightweight but sufficiently entertaining dose of comic dementia with a nightmarish streak of violence running through it. The strong cast supplies a good deal of charm, but ultimately the film’s tone is on the diffuse side, spelling a more certain future on cable and video than in theaters.
Living in a trailer home dripping with faux Hawaiian decor, Buzzard Wall (Stephen Baldwin) and his wife, Betty (Emily Lloyd), are banking on his invention of an ultraprotective sunscreen lotion to get them out of Cactus Gulch and into the tropics. But their application for a government product-funding grant gets turned down, and their fantasy looks set to fizzle.
Enter Turk (Chris Penn), Buzz’s murder-happy half-brother, fresh from a prison break and looking for a handout. Things get ugly fast, with Turk putting his brother momentarily out of action and then taking Betty hostage. Teaming up with ambitious reporter Maya Gundinger (Musetta Vander), Buzz sets off across the Tex-Mex desert to save Betty.
The film is never less than likable but rarely much more. The desired register seems to lie somewhere between “Raising Arizona” and “El Mariachi,” but the comedy clicks only some of the time and the violence is miscalculated, going brutally beyond the comic-book flippancy it should have.
Performing in an affably screwy key, Lloyd and Baldwin make a winsome pair, their energy and natural humor helping to muffle the script’s weaknesses and first-time feature director Jeff Celentano’s somewhat unsure hand on the rudder. Penn also is fine, though his menacing character reps the movie’s least successfully integrated element.