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I Got a Rock

By Brian Prisco | Film | October 12, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | October 12, 2010 |

You can tell that Stone was written by a playwright, in that it’s primarily a character-driven piece for four talented actors. And the casting is magnificent: Edward Norton, Robert De Niro, Milla Jovovich, and Frances Conroy. It’s the kind of acting that would destroy you on the stage, the sheer electricity of those four performances would fry you right in your seats. But this isn’t a play, it’s a feature film. While the performances are amazing, they’re couched in a really insubstantial narrative. There’s not a single subtlety or surprise in the entire film, and the actions of the characters feel completely motivated by the page and not the pace. They do stupid and random shit because the script tells them to. There’s a world of difference between bluntness and lack of nuance. There’s nothing surprising or tense about the film. It unspools like a particularly clunky episode of “NCIS.” Which is a shame, because the acting is simply phenomenal.

We open with a young married couple on a Michigan farm. The husband sits in his easy chair, watching professional golf, while the wife brings him a glass of liquor. She brings their daughter upstairs and puts her to bed, and then comes down to tell him she’s leaving. The husband dashes upstairs and dangles their daughter out a window, threatening to hurl her out if she ever leaves. It’s a powerful moment, made all the more powerful when we see the couple, probably 40 years later, in virtually the same positions, except now the wife has poured herself a glass. If the rest of the film was as stunning as this first scene, it would take every damn award available. And they might invent a few more just to give them to the cast. It’s the kind of work you’d expect from John Curran, the director of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, and Angus Machlachlan, the screenwriter of the wonderful surprise Junebug.

But then it firmly locks itself in an afterschool special track, like one of those amusement park cars that little kids can pretend to drive around. I wish there was something more special in the relationship between Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro), a jaded two-months-from-retirement parole officer, and Madylyn (Frances Conroy), the wife who stayed. Jack sits and listens to convicts feed him bullshit while he in return feeds them bullshit, and then he goes home to his wife, where they drink and say prayers. It’s like people who have a backyard and don’t bother to grow a garden or own a grill. All this fertile soil and useful land, and you’re just wasting it.

Enter Gerald Creeson (Edward Norton), a lanky white-boy gangsta type who spits in a mad patois of Detroit slang. He dangles like a drunk window-washer above the ledge of stepinfetchitude. Gerald insists on being called Stone, though no reason is really given for this bizarre moniker. Stone is an arsonist and former junky who got charged with accessory to murder and arson after his cousin Teach murdered their grandparents and he set them on fire. Stone’s up for parole, so he tells his elementary school teacher wife Lucella (Milla Jovovich) to seduce Jack and see if she can influence him. Lucella’s kind of a wild-child, who beds random guys and flirts shamelessly. See if you can figure out where this is going. But I sure as fuck don’t know why it went there.

The film really wants to be an allegory about Biblical temptation and redemption, but it’s missing a few chapters and verses. It’d be if during the parable of Job, Job just got fed up and offed himself, and then God asked for a best two out of three. It’s a bizarre narrative streak. You can never tell whose faith is authentic or false, and it almost seems like neither could the filmmakers. It’s like a minister replacing his sermon with dialogue from “The Wire.” Sure, it might be interesting, but it also seems wildly out of place. Again, it’s a matter of shaking up the snowglobe of faith, but then immediately letting everything just settle so you have one of each: an atheist, an agnostic, a spiritualist, and a devout Christian. Crises of faith seem so easily settled, you fear what this same screenwriter would have done with the Gaza Strip. Something involving a hug.

But, sweet Jesus, the acting is enough to make you believe again. Frances Conroy doesn’t get much of a part, but that might have played to her advantage. She’s kind of this mellow, slowly flickering candle that suddenly gets hit with a spritz of lighter fluid. It’s never some hair-waving mad menopausal Ophelia rave. It’s so wonderfully contained. De Niro finally has a script worth his time that doesn’t involve cat-nipples or Cialis puns, and he reminds you why he handles Tribeca. Watching him clash with each individual actor is where the performance soars. In particular, Norton’s got a scene where he’s ranting and raving and storming out of the room, and De Niro lashes out at him from behind the desk and figuratively grabs him by the back of the collar with his words. Norton’s performance is strong, but he’s got such a bizarre fucking character. It almost felt as if the part was written for a black actor, and was cast with Norton because Curran loved working with him in The Painted Veil. It’s weird, because he’s much better once he drops the hip-hop lingo, but he’s also hilarious when he’s spouting dialogue like, “I ain’t want no beef with you, I’monna be vegetarian.” It’s certainly not his strongest performance, but it holds against the whirlwind of everyone else. Why Milla Jovovich doesn’t have an Oscar nomination yet is beyond me. It might be because she tends to get shitty fucking scripts and takes them, but when you see her in something like Dummy as Fangora, she’s got an amazing presence. She’s like a fucking cat, and it’s turned up to eleven in this film. She’s almost manic as Lucetta — this predator who uses cute and bubbly as fangs and claws. You can actually feel the sexuality crackling off her. She’ll always be a video game vixen, but hopefully this gets her some more fucking respect.

I wish the script could keep up with the acting, but the plot’s laid out like a pre-fab trailer. Even when you think something exciting might happen, it doesn’t. The film’s painfully predictable, and no amount of acting can save you from that. As each cliche comes hammering down, you wince at the painful wasting of the cast. It’d be damn easy to let the performances blind you, but when you actually sit down and look at the goddamn IKEA manual narrative, you’re a little ashamed of the writer and director. Both of whom are capable of better.