Bad haircut, worse movie

October 15, 2010

Ed Norton, in full prison garb, walks into a counseling office. He informs his parole officer that he has found religion. Suspicious, yes, but it appears that his epiphany has some degree of sincerity to it, and Ed has become a new man. Sounds like American History X, right? But get this: Ed’s parole officer is Robert De Niro, he’s married to Milla Jovovich of Resident Evil fame, and he’s sporting corn-rows. Yes, this film has Oscar-bait written all over. But Stone was doomed to sink from the start.

Directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil), Stone follows parole officer Jack Mabrey (De Niro) as he works through his final case before retirement. The man up for parole is the ominously named Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Norton), an arsonist who was complicit in the murder of his grandparents, and burned down their home to destroy the evidence.

Worried that he will miss his chance for freedom, Stone calls upon his wife Lucetta (Jovovich) to “convince” Mabrey that his transformation is genuine. Lucetta, the femme fatale of the film, succeeds in seducing Mabrey, despite his avid church-going and fanaticism for religious radio.

Simultaneously, Stone—whose religious awakening has always been suspect—undergoes a genuine conversion after witnessing a prison murder. As Stone’s parole hearing nears, both leads aimlessly deal with their crises of morality.

One of Stone’s inherent problems is its refusal to choose its focus. De Niro’s character, whose fall is juxtaposed with Norton’s stereotypical prison conversion, represents the hypocrisy of Middle America’s religious right. The critique of religion could have driven the movie, but the director takes a wider scope and unnecessarily complicates the plot—Mabrey’s issues with aging and depression are particularly frustrating.  The film’s tone is inconsistent, too. Elements of horror and noir arrive at distracting points in the plot.

The film also fails to create any characters who are worth rooting for. The chokehold relationship between Mabrey and has his wife, for example, plays out like a Lifetime featurette.  It’s something of an accomplishment that the film can have such colorless leads despite featuring the two of America’s favorite actors.

On the bright side, Norton plays his character with a kind of ambiguity that keeps the audience wondering whether his conversion is genuine. De Niro and Jovovich did as fine a job as they could, but the script limited the possibility of any standout performances. Your money would be better spent on a second viewing of The Social Network, but if you’re really craving some jailhouse drama, Conviction comes out this weekend and features Hillary Swank and Sam Rockwell, and will probably suck a lot less than Stone.

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