Laura Clifford Robin CliffordPearl Madison (Don Cheadle, "Manic") is an aspiring writer working as a teacher at juvenile hall. His newest student, admitted after inexplicably murdering the autistic brother of a former girlfriend, piques both Pearl's authorial and tutorial interests when he hands back his history book after altering its title to "The United States of Leland."
Newbie writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge takes a page from his own experiences as a juvie prison teacher to explore what he found the media had ignored - the complexities of adolescent crime. Hoge succeeds tying up his mystery with a touching conclusion, but he is often heavy handed pondering such deep concepts as whether the glass is half empty or half full. The film plays like a cross between the truthfulness of edgy Cheadle-starrer "Manic" crossed with the contrived bathos of the glossier "The Safety of Objects."
The film introduces its cast of characters in somewhat confusing fashion (Hoge seems to purposely obscure relationships to make their latter clarification appear to be filling in the gaps of a mystery). In voiceover, Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling, "Murder by Numbers") informs us that it is the first really hot day of spring as we see an aerial overhead of a park. A girl, Becky (Jena Malone, "Cold Mountain"), hides drug paraphernalia when her dad (Martin Donovan, "Insomnia") looks in. A man on an airplane (Kevin Spacey, "The Life of David Gale") adds the apostrophe to 'Its' in an ad for a teenage 800# hotline. A dazed Leland tells his frantic mother (Lena Olin, "Chocolat") that he's made a mistake. Flashes of television news reports begin to connect the disparate characters in a shared tragedy.
Pearl, who is flirting with the seduction of a coworker (Kerry Washington, "Against the Ropes") while his long time lover is away, is partly genuinely interested in Leland and partly set to exploit him (including an awkward attempt to connect with Leland's cold, disdainful dad). Leland comes right out and announces there will be no answer to the 'why' question, then slowly leads Pearl to the answer. The first, obvious possibility is retaliation towards the girl, Becky Pollard (Malone), who painfully dumped him, a situation that is being mirrored within the Pollard family in a subplot involving Becky's sister Julie (Michelle Williams, "The Station Agent") and the high school jock Allen (Chris Klein, "We Were Soldiers") who lives with them.
Hoge seems to be trying too hard to make his point resonate. The aforementioned subplot seems manufactured to give Hoge's theme additional depth, but its manufacture is too far-fetched, its execution unbelievable. (It relies on, for one thing, Pearl's repeated flouting of security by bringing a serrated knife onto the grounds daily, ostensibly to eat mangoes. Allen's inclusion in the Pollard household, which parallels Leland's attachment to a New York city family, is also too much of a stretch.) Hoge visualizes his theme of optimism vs. pessimism, hope vs. despair with jump cuts displaying scenes which are repeated with the same point of view with one eye closed. When Leland's mom asks if everything is OK, he winks at her.
The focal discussion between Pearl and Leland is also murky. Leland questions Pearl's motivation to do something Pearl acknowledges he knew was wrong, yet Pearl's hunt for the 'why' leads to a heinous act done for the 'right' reasons. Leland may not have faith or hope, but he certainly does possess charity. Pearl's 'why' is simple human fallibility, whereas Leland's is more inscrutable - what does Leland's pursuit of Pearl's truth address that is relevant to his own deeds?
Leland doesn't provide Gosling with much room to stretch, as the character is an enigma and Gosling plays him like a teenager whose emotions have been flatlined by prozac. He makes the character so sweet and socially inept, one initially wonders if he's simple. Cheadle gives a competent take on his character, written as irresponsible opportunist with some underlying compassion. He makes the guy's venality average, which is, I think, one of the filmmaker's points, and shows true penitence at the movie's conclusion. Spacey gives one of his patented shark-eyed turns in one scene with Cheadle, one of the film's best written. With little screen time, both Lena Olin and Ann Magnuson ("The Panic Room") make an impression as the mothers of perpetrator and victim. Casting and narrative confusion make Malone and Williams perplexing as sisters, but Williams is convincing if Malone is adrift in the same tranquilized state as Gosling. Chris Klein shows an admirable willingness to be cast against teen comedy type.
"The United States of Leland" is a manipulative stab at an important subject that only partially succeeds. Its artifice distracts from its truths.
Robin did not see this film.
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