Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 16, 2004 3:21 pm 
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The disunited states of Matthew Ryan Hoge

It’s interesting to contrast Ryan Gosling’s brilliant performance as the terrifyingly smart, aggressive, and articulate Jewish Nazi skinhead Danny Balint in Henry Bean’s “The Believer” with his characterization of Leland P. Fitzgerald, the sweet, confused middle class child of detached, alienated American whiteness who’s murdered an autistic kid in “The United States of Leland.” And this is probably the only reason to see this new movie. The roles are polar opposites, and that must have attracted a young actor as talented and adventurous as Gosling. But the movie is a muddle and so, inevitably, is Gosling’s Leland. The best actor in the world couldn’t make sense out of Matthew Ryan Hoge’s sappy, disorganized writing and unsure direction.

This is a movie that never decides where it’s going and never develops a pulse. It’s ill conceived in a whole list of ways. Leland is in special custody for committing this terrible, inexplicable crime – which his fellow inmates consider so evil they call him “Devil Boy.” Yet he is portrayed as a young philosopher, a mild-mannered (if potentially lethal) Holden Caulfield. The disconnect is never explained. The movie purports to be exploring Leland’s motives for the killing but it never finds any.

The tension is diffused by telling the story out of order with intercut scenes that build up our knowledge of subsidiary characters like Leland’s mean, famous writer father (Kevin Spacey), his mother (Lena Olin), his girlfriend Becky (Jena Malone) ), his girlfriend’s little brother and sister and parents, a young guy who lives with them (Chris Klein) and. . . and. . . Hoge doesn’t know where to stop.

These subplots weaken all the characterizations, not just the central one, and they rob the movie of any point. Hoge is so interested in the career and love problems of Leland’s prison teacher and would-be biographer, Pearl (Don Cheadle), in Leland’s nasty, remote dad, in the dilemma of Chris Klein’s character, and in Leland’s girlfriend’s drug issues, that the mystery of Leland and his crime never gets plumbed, even if Hoge knew how to do that, which he doesn’t seem to.

Is Leland some kind of perverted saint, or just a mild-mannered psychopath? We never find out. All we know is he has come to look on the world as very sad, and that’s the best explanation we get for the crime: he wanted to save the little boy from sorrow.

At one point confused, vague flashbacks about trips when Leland was supposed to visit his father in Paris but wound up in New York reveal yet another subplot as he’s semi-adopted by a well off Manhattan family.

This all seems either ludicrous or crazy; if it strikes you as sensitive and deep, maybe you’d better check your own pulse.

Autism advocates are up in arms at the suggestion that Leland's killing of an autistic boy might be merciful, but this is not a portrait of the autistic boy -- who's only glimpsed a few times, or of the crime (ditto). What's even more reprehensible than the slighting of the boy is the suggestion that murder might be seen merely as an expression of teenage angst. The thinking behind this movie doesn't bear looking into, and if you want to demonstrate against every badly written film you're going to be awfully busy.

Another interesting contrast is to compare "The United States of Leland" with Jordan Melamed’s “Manic,” where Don Cheadle plays a very similar role as a psychiatrist dealing with a disturbed youth named Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s killed a child in a fit of rage. “Manic” depicts in concrete terms where Lyle’s rage comes from. We see that the rage is still there as a lifelong problem, but that, with luck, he may learn to tame it. There’s no nonsense about the sorrow of the world and there aren’t a lot of confusing subplots. “Manic," in fact, may be almost too simple, but it fairly bristles with powerful, authentic emotion. The story moves forward with intensity and the performances really sing.

Gosling doesn’t shake our faith in his skill as an actor, and Cheadle, Klein, Spacey, and the other principals all do respectable, occasionally fine work, but they can’t compensate for how badly this movie is conceived, written, and edited.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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