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God Works in Mediocre Ways: 'Stone'

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Friday, Oct 29, 2010
With its excess of blatant symbolism and illogical character turns, what could have been a halfway decent exploration of personal ethics turns into a half-assed excuse for entertainment.
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Stone

Director: John Curran
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Enver Gjokaj, Pepper Binkley

(Overture Films; US theatrical: 29 Oct 2010 (General release); 2010)

Coming SoonThey say God works in mysterious ways. Apparently, his approach is also dull and relatively lifeless, if you consider the new character-driven drama Stone part of the deity’s designs. Retrofitted with a completely false “thriller” tag by some misguided Madison Avenue marketers and wasting the able talents of Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton, and Milla Jovovich, this talky, uninteresting exploration of morality makes crime and punishment as compelling as a stack of bureaucratic paperwork. With its excess of blatant symbolism and illogical character turns, what could have been a halfway decent exploration of personal ethics turns into a half-assed excuse for entertainment.


DeNiro is Jack Mabrey, a career pencil pusher with a dark streak - or at least, that’s what we are shown when, in an early scene, he threatens to throw his newborn daughter out of a second story window. Lost in a world of religious radio and homebound Bible thumping, he is now biding his time until retirement, a vacant wife and an endless tumbler of bourbon awaiting his golden years. One of his last potential parole cases centers on Norton’s arsonist and felony murderer Gerald “Stone” Creeson. With his white rapper cornrows and equally affected urban drawl, Mabrey sees through the classic inmate con man right away. But as they begin to talk, as they connect on a level of disillusionment and dead-ends, both begin to warm to the other.
  
Enter Lucetta (Jovovich doing wild child white trash chic), Creeson’s devoted wife and town scandal. She initially contacts Mabrey to put in a good word for hubby. With some prodding from her old man, she eventually seduces the correctional sad sack, convincing him that there is still life inside his seemingly empty body. Then, Creeson connects with an unusual religious sect that has him converted and “seeing the light.” Confused, Mabrey’s not sure what to believe. With his life crumbling and the DOC hearing coming up, he must figure out the truth. Should Creeson go free? Is Lucetta for real, or part of a planned ruse? And what will happen once the prison doors close for the last time and both men are left to their own devices in the harsh real world? Frankly, who cares?


It’s no surprise to learn that writer Angus MacLachlan adapted one of his own plays into the paltry Stone. This is a movie made up of monologue moments, independent actor showboats that never link to each other emotionally or philosophically.  This is a film of performers PERFORMING, of putting on obvious affectations and approaches that never once seem real, organic, or believable. DeNiro is in pinched up mode, his mannerisms so strained that you’d swear he needs a good laxative, not a roll in the hay with Jovovich (yes…we get a sex scene…ugh). Norton, on the other hand, has studied the Caucasian Suburban Adolescent Hip-Hop Fan Handbook one too many times. The ‘straight up G’ junk is his entire reason for being. With the sloppy street slang and Ebonic back and forth, he’s like a skit from In Living Color two decades too late.


Indeed, only Jovovich comes across as anything other than arch - at least, for the first reel and a half. Before we know it, she too turns into an archetype, the loose virtue whore who thinks nothing of standing naked in the mirror and ringing up a booty call while simultaneously working her various nefarious angles. Since she carries a certain catlike sexuality, we can believe in her predatory nature. But Stone pushes the boundaries of such purpose.


Because she is so blatant in her seduction, so warning buzzer in her bedplay with Mabrey, Lucetta becomes the film’s biggest liability. We can almost understand Creeson’s conversion - once Norton drops the ODB bit, he’s interesting and our supposed hero is such a cipher we don’t really pay attention. But Lucetta is like a splash of red in a black and white painting - unavoidable, unexplainable, and ultimately unnecessary.


Honestly, most of Stone is pointless and redundant. Mabrey is not a compelling figure since we see how far he will go to get his way. It’s a huge mistake by director John Curran to open with a DeNiro lookalike more or less threatening to kill a child. With no context, no understanding of the backstory relationship between the characters involved, it plays like a leftover from a horror film. Similarly, a last act moment when Mabrey comes onto, and then curses out, a female coworker is ludicrous in its motives.


Maybe DeNiro was just so fed up at playing passive that he had to vent and let some of his inner Goodfella out. Whatever the case, we’ve seen it all before - the older man wanted to feel needed physically, the young woman eager to manipulate such aging impotence, the saint/secret huckster in the middle pulling the storyline strings. Nothing novel. Nothing new.


Perhaps if the film wasn’t so heavy-handed in the way it attacked its ideas. Maybe if we had different actors, one’s without the inherent iconography or in-your-face qualities of those present. It sure would have helped had Curran not decided to mimic glaciers in his pacing and MacLachlan needs to be reminded of the differences between film and stage. What works in an intimate in-person setting comes across as false and arrogant in the far more open realm of the cinema.


What’s clear however is that, in this version, with this cast and this concentrated desire to fool the viewer into thinking they are about to see something spine-tingling instead of brain numbing, Stone sags. We don’t expect pure fireworks, but a little sizzle wouldn’t hurt. Maybe if the Almighty himself had been involved, we’d get something more successful. Merely namechecked, however, His presence ends up just another tedious plot device.


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