Making liberal hearts bleed in anytown, U.S.A.

Why does Hollywood keep churning out didactic movies like "Promised Land"?

Topics: The American Prospect, Promised Land, matt damon, Gus Van Sant, Hollywood

Making liberal hearts bleed in anytown, U.S.A.Matt Damon in "Promised Land" (Credit: Scott Green)
This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant’s Promised Land, written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office’s John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit.

His brow as furrowed as if he’s just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in “loyal servant,” no doubt—who’s snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting’s lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking like flyover country to well-meaning Hollywoodites even from a minivan. When you’re telling a story about the potential destruction of a community, providing some sense of said community’s distinctive crotchets and idiosyncrasies might be nice, but Promised Land‘s sense of place is mired at sitcom level. Figuring out that a town like this probably has a high-school basketball team of some sort is about as sharp as the movie’s observational gifts get.

Still, the early sequences as Butler learns his way around Anyville —insinuating himself into the locals’ good graces by participating in a drinking game at what appears to be the only bar in town, vaguely taking up with Rosemary De Witt as Alice, an implausibly chic schoolteacher—do have some vitality. Van Sant is often happiest when he’s in no hurry to get to the point, and Frances McDormand brings some genuine flavor and individuality to her talking-point part as Butler’s frankly mercenary (“It’s just a job”) sidekick. I’m not sure there’s another actress around with comparable expertise at adding a compassionate pound of flesh to stick figures.



Then, as in a Nativity play, everybody else starts to tiresomely shuffle toward incarnating their representative debate roles. We get the yokel who’s fatuously thrilled about the chance to make a killing; we get the Rueful Guy whose family has owned his land for generations. The ringer in the bunch is Hal Holbrook—no, I wouldn’t blame you if you just quit reading right there—as a high-school science prof who’s all up to speed on fracking’s adverse consequences and challenges Butler at town meetings. Naturally, it’s not enough that he’s informed and saintly; he’s got to be a world-renowned academic who’s teaching at Anyville High in his sunset years for the fun of it. So much for trusting the common people to figure things out unassisted, and what I’d give by now to see Holbrook play an illiterate, vicious old loon who eats kittens and brags about it is beyond describing.

Butler’s foil is Krasinski as Dustin Noble, who turns up to lobby against Global on behalf of an environmental outfit called Athena. Soon, he’s not only making better time with Alice the schoolteacher than Damon did, but outdoing him at going native in The Only Bar in Town. If Krasinski seems to have wrong-headedly prepped for the role by watching a truckload of slasher movies, it turns out there’s an explanation for that—and yet the climactic big reveal about Dustin’s true agenda in Anyville isn’t at all convincing. Damon’s performance is more adept, but not really by that much; when you recall that this dreary crisis-of-conscience role is one he wrote for himself—and then compare it to his imaginative, quiddity-filled take on Middle American corporate foibles in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant—you realize, once again, that earnestness affects even good actors the way chloroform affects butterflies.

What, I wonder, is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land? The unconverted obviously won’t go, and the converted won’t learn anything they don’t know—except, maybe, a few tidbits confirming their suspicion that Hollywood doesn’t know enough about “ordinary” Americans to be trustworthy even when agitating on their behalf. The point of projects like this one can’t be merely to gratify the filmmakers’ sense of virtue, can it? Unfortunately, of course it can. If you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing Megyn Kelly, they’re just math celebrities do as liberals to make themselves feel better.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>