Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Cinema File #173: "The Place Beyond The Pines" Review

I walked into The Place Beyond The Pines with no knowledge of its structure or plot beyond what I could glean from the trailer, which led me to expect something akin to a small town take on The Departed. Instead, what I got was a sprawling epic about two generations of two families on the opposite side of the law spanning fifteen years and dealing with both small scale human drama and the larger scale arc of history repeating itself. Okay, yeah, I guess it is still kinda like The Departed. Anyway, like Amour, this was a movie that I knew almost instantly was of a type that I usually do not enjoy, and yet also like the Haneke film, I found myself more engaged with it than I would have thought. While it takes a while to get going and falls apart a bit in the third act, I still found it to be highly enjoyable.

The story begins with a carnie returning to Schenectady, NY after several years on the road to discover that he has a son he never knew existed, leading to a series of bad choices all in support of good intentions that kicks off a cycle of tragedy. It is here that my first problem with the film instantly presents itself, as once again Ryan Gosling has gone out of his way to take on a role that he is incredibly not suited for. I'm sorry, maybe its just me, in fact its probably just me, but I just don't think he's all that great an actor, and he should really think about skipping these pretentious attempts to seem deep and stick to the kind of pretty boy roles once taken by a pre-director Ben Affleck. That unsolicited advice is no less relevant here, as he stumbles and mumbles his way through a part he never fits into well no matter how many bad fake tattoos they slap onto him.

For me, the movie doesn't get really good until Gosling's impromptu life of crime is made complicated by the arrival of Bradley Cooper as a rookie cop in the right place at the right time. Once the story shifts to focus on him and his dogged attempt to maintain his integrity on a corrupt police force, I found I had all but forgotten about the bleached blond hooligan's bank robbing baby funding scheme except insofar as it went to inform the much more interesting storyline. That Bradly Cooper of all people is the lynch pin, an actor who I've never been impressed with even when supposedly very sophisticated Oscar people were telling me to be, was especially surprising to me. This is easily the best I've ever seen him, though admittedly that is relative to the fact that I haven't actually liked him in anything until this movie. 

The three acts of the film are clearly demarcated in their focus on different characters, the third jumping fifteen years into the future to follow Gosling and Cooper’s now teenage sons who conveniently strike up a friendship while unknowingly living under the weight of their fathers’ sins. This is probably the weakest segment, as the theme of repeating history unfurls into what becomes a predictable fashion. I understand the aim of it; I just wish it could have been done in a way that was as exciting and viscerally impactful as what came before it. Neither of the two actors portraying the teenagers are very good, and Cooper’s hyper macho club kid is just downright annoying. By the time we come full circle in the final scene, what should have been a poignant moment just had me rolling my eyes as a point was being made far too heavy handedly to be effective.

The Place Beyond The Pines feels like its trying to say a lot of the same things as Cloud Atlas, without the schmaltzy pathos, weird sci fi, goofy make-up, or Wachowskian obtuseness (as if there was more to that movie than those things). It mostly succeeds, though it isn’t as subtle or profound as it seems to think it is. Overall, I was entertained, certainly much more than I thought I would be at the outset, which is saying something considering how little regard I have for most of the performers. It ends up a little disjointed in retrospect, but the stuff that’s good is good enough to merit the praise the film has already received, and the triptych structure leads me to give a pass to the less interesting sections as I would any anthology film, where the whole doesn’t necessarily need to be better than the sum of its parts. I don’t recommend it as highly as I would Amour, the last film I was this surprised to have liked, but I definitely think it’s worth a watch on DVD somewhere down the line.
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