Friday, April 12, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines: Can't see the forest for the trees

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, for profanity, violence, brief sexuality and teen drug and alcohol use
By Derrick Bang

What a yawn.

And an unpleasant, bewildering yawn, at that.

Although she should know better, Romina (Eva Mendes) rekindles what couldn't have
been more than a fleeting relationship with Luke (Ryan Gosling) in the first place.
Letting him back into her life makes him believe that he has family obligations, which
in turn prompts a rather desperate means of earning some cash. It's hard to view
this relationship as credible, a problem that infects most of the entire film.
No doubt inspired by Crash, Babel and similar films with interwoven plotlines, director/co-scripter Derek Cianfrance seems to have tried for the same with The Place Beyond the Pines. Unfortunately, he forgot a few key ingredients: engaging characters, credible behavior and a moral center to what rapidly devolves into a pointless muddle.

Ultimately, the gimmick is all that remains: one story that leads to a second, which in turn prompts a third that hearkens back to the first. By itself, that’s a rather slim thread on which to hang an interminable 140-minute film. That’s a lot of time to spend with dull, dreary characters we neither like nor understand.

Worse yet, Cianfrance’s insufferably ponderous style — long, lingering close-ups, great stretches of silence as characters contemplate The Meaning Of It All — screams faux relevance in every frame. One cannot be “deep” simply by wishing it so; the world is littered with the detritus of bad poets who’ve learned that lesson.

Actually, many of them never did learn, much to everybody else’s regret. And the same can be said of pompous filmmakers.

The result in this case is bewildering, given that Cianfrance’s previous effort, the deeply intimate Blue Valentine, delivered the achingly tragic emotional arc that eludes this new film at every turn. Maybe Blue Valentine’s success derives from Cianfrance’s greater comfort with just two central characters; the broader tapestry attempted with The Place Beyond the Pines — terrible title, by the way — seems beyond him.

Cianfrance shares scripting credit with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, and they collectively view human nature the way we might be observed by visitors from Alpha Centauri. Most of the events and subsequent psychological fallout here ring false: as contrived as some of the tin-eared dialogue and angst-y recriminations.

Motorcycle stunt rider Luke (Ryan Gosling), part of a traveling carnival, blows into Schenectady, upstate New York, where he re-connects with former lover Romina (Eva Mendes). Their previous hook-up, a year earlier, resulted in a child, Jason, that Luke hasn’t known about until this moment. Although Romina now seems in a happy relationship with a new guy, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), she carries lingering feelings for Luke and unwisely allows him to believe he might have a place in their son’s life.

OK, women behaving stupidly with dangerous guys has been around since gender was invented, but one would expect Romina’s maternal instincts to raise at least a few red flags; Luke is clearly an unstable loose cannon with a hair-trigger temper, and capable of God knows what.

Indeed, “God knows what” turns out to be robbing banks, which is Luke’s solution to the cash-flow problems involved with helping to support a family. He’s encouraged into this scheme by new buddy and employer Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a fringe-dweller who plays at being a car mechanic. But once Luke develops a taste for the adrenalin rush that follows a successful score, he can’t stop.

And, because Luke’s failings include recklessness, he’s bound to attract attention.

Enter rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a decent guy who disappointed his wife (Rose Byrne) and father — Al (Harris Yulin), a retired judge — by abandoning his law degree in favor of joining the police force. We suspect a generational conflict here, particularly since this film’s central premise seems to revolve around the sins of the fathers being visited upon their sons.

Luke’s path crosses Avery’s, at which point the narrative transitions to the latter. Hailed as a local hero but uncomfortable with the label, Avery’s mounting psychological issues are exacerbated by the fresh attention shown by the department’s corrupt Detective Deluca (Ray Liotta), who expects this just-anointed golden boy to be useful in various illicit ways.

Just in passing, Liotta needs to stop playing bent cops and vicious wiseguys. They’ve become a cliché with him, and they come too easily; he sleepwalks through this part, expecting us to fill in the blanks with our memory of all the other times he has delivered exactly the same performance.

For reasons that remain unclear, Avery winds up in the crosshairs of district attorney Bill Killcullen (Bruce Greenwood), who acts as if this young cop has been behaving badly for years. That’s neither true nor fair; Avery’s sole “failing” is ambition, which most of us would view as a virtue. Granted, Avery eventually leverages a combustible situation to his benefit, but that’s hardly a hanging offense.

This off-kilter dynamic between Avery and Killcullen is typical of the way characters interact with each other throughout this film: too much artifice and unnatural behavior.

Enter the third story arc, set 15 years after events in the first two. Avery has matured into a political force of nature, along the way divorcing his wife and becoming an absentee father. His teenage son, AJ (Emory Cohen), has grown up a spoiled and sullen brat who, again for undisclosed reasons, suddenly decides that he wants to live with his father.

Actually, that description isn’t strong enough. AJ is nothing short of the Antichrist: the epitome of psychopathic evil. I’ve gotta give Cohen credit for nailing this role with authority; Cianfrance coaxes a positively scary performance out of the young actor.

Avery, in the middle of a political campaign, seems oblivious to his son’s failings. That’s ridiculous enough, but it’s sheer lunacy to believe — as we must — that Avery’s various handlers wouldn’t keep a closer eye on the boy. A climactic, out-of-control party at the family mansion is eye-rolling madness. By this point, Avery already has bailed AJ out of jail once, and we’re supposed to believe that the kid would be left at home alone?


Thanks to the cyclic nature of this script, when AJ enters the local high school he naturally befriends Jason (Dane DeHaan), whom he recognizes as a fellow loser and recreational stoner. AJ’s influence on Jason proves toxic, although the latter already is seriously damaged goods.

And why, pray tell?

AJ obviously is a bad seed whose malevolent tendencies were exacerbated by crap parenting and too much money, but everything we’ve seen indicates that Jason would have grown up in a loving home, with a mother and step-father who care for him deeply, and have been present every day of his life. Arbitrarily making Jason another “bad kid,” simply for the sake of this warped storyline, is daft.

So is the final scene that Cianfrance builds to, which apparently is supposed to be poetic, or ironic, or some such nonsense. No, it’s merely more contrived nonsense.

It’s a shame to see actors of Gosling and Cooper’s caliber wasted on such overcooked and under-nourished roles, although — to be fair — they’re more interesting to watch than most, when it comes to Cianfrance’s long, slow takes on their pensive faces. Cooper has a genuinely powerful moment when Avery chats with a psychiatrist, whose rather brutal questions trigger a wave of conflicting feelings. Even though the shrink’s questions ring as false as just about everything else in this script, Avery’s silent response looks and feels genuine.

Ah, if only the rest of the film delivered such persuasive emotional depth.

The tin-eared plot and dialogue aside, most of these characters just aren’t very pleasant. The one exception is Kofi, and Ali delivers the film’s one genuinely compassionate and honorable performance. Too bad we don’t spend more time with him.

The casting per se is fine, even excellent at times. Mendelsohn is note-perfect as the scruffy, mildly larcenous Robin; Greenwood is spot-on as the brittle D.A. Ergo, Cianfrance has no trouble getting his actors to be a certain way; he simply can’t justify their words and deeds.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is naturalistic, the quiet vistas — by day or night — often more interesting than the people inhabiting them. And the camera’s unflattering portrait of Schenectady amplifies the dead-end sense of isolation that fuels these characters.

Ultimately, though, you’ll view this slog — with its three (four?) false endings — as a lot of fuss and bother about damn little. The irritated faces at Wednesday’s preview screening obviously shared the same thought: We put up with all that overwrought melodrama for this?

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