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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Promised Land' too preachy on environmental issues

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Special Photo: Focus Features Matt Damon stars in "Promised Land."

2 out of 4 stars

(PG-13)

Starting off with close to a bang and ending with a dull thud, "Promised Land" is an environmental cause drama that wears its bleeding heart on its sleeve. Yet another in a series of off-key, furrowed-brow, awkwardly executed holiday releases, it isn't here to entertain but rather to preach -- and preach to the choir it does. Not a single person on either side of its core issue will change their mind after seeing it.

Writer and original choice for director Matt Damon takes the lead as Steve, an Iowa-born executive whose straight talk manner and aw-shucks charm have recently earned him a promotion as vice president with a major energy company. Steve's first assignment is to go to a farm district in an unnamed rust belt state and convince (some might say payoff) landowners who are sitting on untold amounts of natural gas.

Before he even starts with his canned pitches, Steve and longtime co-worker Sue (a prickly Frances McDormand) visit the local general/gun store for a wardrobe makeover that includes dungarees, lots of flannel and, Sue assumes, boots. Steve says no, his grandfather's boots will work better and as it turns out, he's right.

Laser-focused and never straying from a message, Steve and Sue work alone -- he with the guys, she with the women folk -- and they make it simple: If you sell your property to us you will become rich. They have the numbers to back up their claims and convincing people steeped in manual labor that they won't have to ever work again is something of an easy sell. That is until the arrival of protester Dustin (co-writer John Krasinski) and the loud disapproval of local hero Frank (Hal Holbrook).

With a grin considerably broader than Steve's, Dustin is a full-time tree-hugger and rebel-rouser who wastes no time putting bugs in peoples ears and placing a negative spin on Steve and Sue's claims. He places signs in yards with images of cattle that died as a result of hydraulic fracturing, aka "fracking," the high-pressure underground drilling with water that is needed is extract the gas.

The cantankerous Frank -- a former teacher and self-proclaimed expert via the Internet -- isn't nearly as knowledgeable on the subject as Dustin but has the lifetime connection to the community and that certain intangible sagely appeal that comes with living a long, straight-and-narrow life.

What started out as a cake walk for Steve and Sue soon turns into a public relations nightmare and they panic. They first try throwing together a desperate and grasping last-minute carnival/fair that gets torpedoed by inclement weather. When that doesn't work they go into high-pressure mode that only increases their now poisoned, negative public perception.

If you're already aware of the cast and director Gus Van Zant's personal positions on "green" issues, you can also clearly understand why two of them wrote it and the rest of them signed on whole-hog. The only things missing in order to make it a complete green whitewash are George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, Barbra Streisand and the late '70s song "Promised Land" by Bruce Springsteen.

To be completely fair to Damon and Krasinski, they do include a late-in-arriving twist that is clever and unforeseen but it also takes the narrative in an even more dubious direction. The only character that doesn't seem to be pounding the war drums and/or standing on a soapbox is Rosemarie Dewitt playing another teacher and possible love interest for one of the guys. She isn't given nearly enough screen time and her tiny sub-plot has little to nothing to do with the rest of the story. (Focus Features)