So Overwrought it Sinks Like a Stone

12/31/2010 12:18 PM |

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The Best Of lists are finished; the polls, voted in. But Henry Stewart is still scrambling to catch up with some of the movies he missed in 2010, at least so he can tell you whether to bump them up in your queue or feel guilt-free for deleting them. Today, the last day of 2010, he discusses John Curran’s Stone.

The cynical Stone is set-up like those neo-noirs John Dahl used to make in the 90s, except it’s stripped of any and all urgency. It does, though, retain the high-minded pretension toward something more meaningful that you’d get from, say, The Last Seduction. In this case, it’s an exploration of sin—its roots and its costs, themes underlined by the frequent snippets of religious talk radio smeared on the soundtrack. AM chatter is one of the pleasures enjoyed by Robert DeNiro’s parole officer; another is illicit intercourse, which he gets from an affair he reluctantly enters with the sexpot wife (Milla Jovovich, in the panty-less, Linda Fiorentino femme fatale role) of one of his cases (Edward Norton).

Unfortunately, there’s not much pleasure for the audience in any of that—just a vague sense of familiarity. And then there’s Norton’s “profoundly spiritual” nervous breakdown, which has more campy charm than sympathetic poignancy (though because of the way Curran lets it play out, laughter feels like the incorrect reaction). As Anthony Cohan-Miccio put it in The L, “Stone is as hard to take seriously as it is to enjoy.” It’s overwrought, especially in its overlapping, impressionistic sound design. But the actors, at least DeNiro and Norton, turn in subdued performances. The former adopts a hangdog sleepiness to play an awkward, exhausted, isolated man, frequently lost in his own thoughts (which we eventually learn, though we also kinda knew all along, are probably semipsychotic); the latter finds his character in voice and hairstyle, using a twangy, pubescent crack to lend vulnerability to the thuggery suggested by his cornrows and the duplicity, by his fast talking. Stone follows in the tradition of Fracture, in which the young hotshots of today spar with the old masters of yore. It’s the only pleasure, and a modest one, afforded to the audience by a film whose characters often seek pleasure and are denied it, too.