'The Place Beyond the Pines': Shadowed by underperformances
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
According to Mosaic law as articulated in the Old Testament, the sins of the fathers are inescapably passed down to the sons. The new movie co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, "The Place Beyond the Pines," tries to demonstrate that this is only the case because the fathers make it that way. This stridently earnest movie uses a sprawling, multi-generational narrative to show that what people too often choose to look at as "fate" is in fact determined by the choices we make, and more important, the lies that we tell. The title location is both a literal "place" in the movie, but also ... you know ... a dark recess of the soul, somewhere that secrets rest, uneasily.
Boogity boogity, indeed. Cianfrance's prior film was the striking but also often heavy-handed "Blue Valentine" in 2010, and it's often painfully clear watching this movie that nobody involved in the production encouraged him to tone down the portent and emotiveness here. Suffice it to say that for almost two and a half teeth-gritting hours, "The Place Beyond the Pines" lays its very male sincerity on with a trowel. This is a movie that's impossible to summarize without giving away plenty of reader-resentment-stoking plot spoilers. A good, and not inordinately revealing, description that will resonate with well-versed-in-history movie lovers would be "Manhattan Melodrama" meets Cassavetes, but that isn't even quite it.
The movie features three connected story lines. In one, Ryan Gosling has the role of a carnival stunt motorcyclist who tries to do the right thing by the woman (Eva Mendes) he unknowingly left with child the last time he swung through upstate New York. Because Gosling's character is a first-class knucklehead -- but a knucklehead with INTEGRITY, the movie keeps hitting you over the head, insisting -- he turns to crime to provide for his baby son. Bradley Cooper, on the other hand, plays a rookie cop who's also got a surfeit of integrity, which leads to uneasiness with his high-powered attorney dad (Harris Yulin) and the corrupt cops around him. The incredible irony is despite the fact that these two characters are determined to do it their way, just like the song says, their standing up for what they believe is right doesn't prevent them from lying to themselves. This flaw as manifested by each of the characters leads to, you'd never guess, dire consequences. Once these consequences bear their bitter fruit, the movie jumps ahead in time and presents a meeting of two characters that will leave pretty much nobody in the audience gasping, "What are the odds?" Well, maybe sarcastically.
The movie is a great opportunity for Gosling and Cooper to go overboard with the whole "guys doing guy stuff that chicks don't get" bit, and Gosling gives in to the temptation far more egregiously than Cooper, who does some surprising underplaying here. Things take a turn for the weird, performance-wise, when the movie introduces its teen characters, one of whom is played by Emory Cohen in a manner that suggests he's auditioning for "I Was a Teenage Bane," as in the "Batman" villain. Mendes and Rose Byrne, who plays Cooper's spouse, go through their paces with admirable stoicism, or perhaps genuine investment in the movie's overheated malarkey. Hard to say, but it's largely for naught, as the film's determination to tell great truths is swallowed up by the self-absorption of the men behind the camera.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.