Boys do cry in Kimberly Pierce's movies. In her new Stop-Loss, a trio of military men returning to their Texas hometown following a bloody tour in Iraq gives her room to grapple with the kind of heartland tensions that in her previous film brought revelation and horror upon Hillary Swank's Brandon Teena. The men (Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are caught in a Tikrit ambush, which stays inside their skulls as they receive a hero's parade later on; not quite a day after medals have been pinned to their chests, Tatum is seen digging a trench in his front yard in nothing but skivvies and gun, while Gordon-Levitt blasts his still-unwrapped wedding gifts with a shotgun. The Bad Shit the fellas carry with them is laid on with a trowel, though Pierce gives the early passages a small, intimate feel... and then the story kicks in and the whole thing gears into the mawkish territory of Rendition and In the Valley of Elah. Phillippe falls prey to the title's "backdoor draft" and goes AWOL, hopping from hotel to hotel with Tatum's fiancée (Abbie Cornish) and coming into contact with maimed comrades, mournful relatives, and what looks like a submerged community of disgraced fugitive soldiers ("So many of you out there," sighs a shady attorney supplying Phillippe with his fake ID). "Fuck the president," the protagonist cries, but that's a check Stop-Loss is not cashing -- feverish yet bizarrely apolitical, the movie tries to have it both ways and fumbles its outraged and reconciliatory impulses equally. Set up as a wail against an especially weaselly lie in a war made entirely of lies, it settles on a broad whimper.
Speaking of having it both ways: Keanu Reeves as an LAPD shit-kicker in Street Kings is meant as a boozy, evidence-tinkering mad-dog as well as some kind of last bastion of outraged justice in a world sinking in the quicksand of corruption. Director David Ayer worked with ersatz-James Ellroy bluster in Training Day and Harsh Times, but here he has the overrated crime novelist himself hacking away at the screenplay -- an early passage of the undercover Reeves provoking a bunch of Koreatown hoods ("You got eyes like apostrophes, you dress white, talk black, and drive Jew") goes a long way in cementing my view of Ellroy's "darkness" as cock-swinging shtick trading inquiry for hollow bravado. To synopsize the plotline is to waste precious space on officers with dirty hands and bloody vendettas, for the entire thing is broad enough to suggest the newest project from those douches who keep cranking out spoofs ("From the guys who brought you Date Movie and Epic Movie: Cop Movie!"). More interesting to ponder the peculiar casting of Reeves as "L.A.'s deadliest white boy," as the aging Zen-beefcake labors to look world-weary in the midst of a sterile, passing-of-the-rookie-torch ritual with Chris Evans. The great (and greatly misunderstood) The Black Dahlia casts a shadow over Street Kings, just as the ghost of Redacted lies behind Stop-Loss: De Palma's Gothic morality took Ellroy's vision out of the tar pit and enlarged it beyond its facile nihilism. With Ayer at the wheel, however, there's only the spectacle of crooked dunces slamming against each other, pitched so monotonously that even caricature-captain Forrest Whitaker is made to rasp: "Wash your mouth out with buckshot!"
The folks of Smart People do not need their mouths washed out -- they need them sewn shut, actually, and may Eli Roth himself handle the needles. Dysfunctional dramedy of the Little Miss Sunshine-The Squid and the Whale-The Savages kind is the genre, which emerges like clockwork from one of the lower circles of Sundance Inferno so bourgeois audiences can congratulate themselves on spotting literary references. ("Oh! Oh! He mentioned Bleak House!") The role of the self-involved misanthrope with the obligatory heart two sizes too small falls to Dennis Quaid, who's mostly hidden behind beard, sweater and scowl; his snarky, Republican daughter is played by Ellen Page in another twirl of the Juno carousel, doing even a drunk scene as if holding court at the Janeane Garofalo Fan Club. An accident catapults lit professor Quaid into the orbit of Sarah Jessica Parker, a former pupil whose "C" grade on an essay still nags her at night -- romance follows, but, with Parker competing for room with Quaid's monstrous ego, it's obvious that it will not be an easy relationship. Noam Murro's direction follows the sitcom blueprint right down to the wacky seasoning supplied by Thomas Haden Church as Quaid's layabout adopted brother, the laidback slob whose job it is to cut through what one character rightly describes as "surly, smarter-than-thou asshole" affectation. He should start with the screenplay.
Seriously, this is Brand-X week. Stop-Loss is generic Wartime Screed, Street Kings is generic Crime Opera, and Smart People is generic Indie Familial Bitchfest. The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, a generic Boy Comes of Age story, might be the most depressing of the bunch, in that it gets a setting and a subject I'm very interested in and homogenizes them into pap. Cao Hamburger's tale of a prepubescent stand-in (Michel Joelsas) in 1970 Brazil, left in an Orthodox Jewish community while his radical parents vanish "on vacation," is a painless enough movie, which is precisely the problem -- the director lingers for five seconds on "Down with dictatorship" graffiti and calls it a day, the rest follows cutely like every other those-were-the-days-my-friend account of awakening youth, pretty much Summer of '42 with stock footage of Pelé. If there is a Marjane Satrapi now blending the political and the personal in Brazil, then s/he sure as hell ain't getting exported.
Reviewed April 20, 2008.