It can’t be easy, doing a stint as the designated Great American Actor. Take Robert De Niro, who reached legendary status as a Brando heir in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but has endured cries of slump or sell-out for a decade or two taking, well, the kinds of roles available to an older guy in today’s brand-driven movie environment: leads in thrillers and silly comedies; character parts elsewhere. De Niro may be guilty of signing for some stupid movies or phoning it in when he gets there, but studios aren’t exactly clamoring for the next Raging Bull.
Few actors know this better than Edward Norton, designated in the late-‘90s as a tough, charismatic, versatile actor in the De Niro/Pacino/Hoffman mode, but often adrift in recent years without an abiding interest in nakedly commercial projects to keep in in studios’ good graces (even on his Marvel superhero movie, he feuded with the suits). By the time De Niro and Norton teamed up in 2001 for The Score, with Brando along for a merry cameo, it was less a titanic act-off than a decent B-grade genre exercise.
You’d be forgiven the assumption, then, that Stone is another such exercise or, worse, a diminished actor reunion along the lines of the woeful De Niro/Pacino team-up Righteous Kill. In the trailer for Stone, one of the few extras on its DVD release, the movie looks an awful lot like a made-for-cable potboiler: De Niro plays Jack, an almost-retired parole officer assigned the case of Stone (Norton), a drawling, motormouthed convicted arsonist who sends his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to prod or maybe seduce Jack into campaigning for his release.
But director John Curran and Angus MacLachlan have more on their minds, about faith and forgiveness and guilt—almost too much, really, for the simple set-up to bear. While Curran eschews tawdry thrills, he also swerves past noir, into portentous psychodrama territory, with every glowering shot, religious talk-radio excerpt, and buzzing fly in the sound mix lingering for maximum heaviness. Curran wants to summon tension from atmosphere, which seems unnecessary with the quality of his actors.
Indeed, the actors make some of this material work; Stone is best as a series of one-on-ones, like existential echoes of the famous De Niro/Pacino diner scene in Heat. It’s not surprising that dialogue between a stoic, uncomfortable De Niro and an antsy Norton has a charge to it, especially as their dynamic shifts along with Stone’s wavering between spiritual awakening and insinuating con games—though it is gratifying to see both actors so alert and volatile, so dedicated to figuring out their lost characters. But it’s B-movie action queen Jovovich who turns out to be the movie’s secret weapon.
As Stone’s devoted wife Lucetta, Jovovich finds an original angle on what could’ve been a stock femme-fatale character – part seductress, part hippie free spirit, in the body of a supermodel and the unlikely job of preschool teacher. Stone refers to her as an alien, and like a lot of his slippery talk, the pronouncement sounds hyperbolic and strange until it starts to sound sort of true, too. Jovovich’s scenes with De Niro, like one where she tries to sell him on the healing power of magnets, have a peculiar, unpredictable energy divorced from the cliches of simple temptation. She holds her own.
Stone is worthwhile, then, less for its storytelling or filmmaking, which is overly fussed-with and a little mannered, than as a strange, often fascinating acting showcase for this strange, often fascinating trio: the grizzled veteran, the upstart who doesn’t quite fit in the Hollywood machine, and the action heroine who, it turns out, can keep up with the Method guys. It’s unfortunate that the DVD doesn’t include a commentary track, or anything beyond the standard five-minute talking-head making-of; Norton is reportedly close with Curran (they previously collaborated on The Painted Veil), and their thoughts on their creative process would’ve been welcome. Maybe taking De Niro for granted is even easier than it looks: he gives his best performance in a few years and not even his director seems to pay it much mind.