THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
2 stars out out 4
Playing out like a neutered trilogy or truncated cable mini-series rather than a proper feature film, the clunky-titled "The Place Beyond the Pines" aspires to be An Important Cinematic Event yet is nothing more than a yawn-inducing, well-intended failure. (A non-spoiler sidenote regarding the title: "The Place Beyond the Pines" is the English language translation of the Mohawk Indian name for Schenectady, the city in New York in which the story is set.)
The follow-up to his equally depressing but far more realized and streamlined "Blue Valentine," director Derek Cianfrance's father-son triptych contains a handful of fertile ideas that ultimately lose whatever strength they might have had thanks to far too much extraneous filler and a tendency to be redundant. If paired down from its 140 to around 100 minutes, it might not have been better but would have at least not been such a chore to watch or slog to sit through.
As he did in "Blue Valentine," Cianfrance casts Ryan Gosling as an underachieving, semi-clueless sort who doesn't know how to stop when the girl he loves tells him to get lost. Like many a delusional lovelorn guy (or gal) before him, Luke (Gosling) thinks if he persists and just tries a bit harder, the object of his affection (Eva Mendes as Romina), will suddenly realize the error of her ways and welcome her back with open arms.
Making a humble but honest living as a motorcycle stunt driver in a traveling circus, Luke crosses paths with Romina a year after they first got together and later finds out he's the father of her child. Oblivious to the fact Romina has never asked him for child support or even told him of the child's existence and that she is currently living with another man, Luke decides the best way to win her back and improve his lot in life is to quit his semi-cool job and start robbing banks.
In the history of boneheaded cinematic career moves, Luke's ranks near the top and he goes from being just dim and ignorant to a belligerent and not very-well organized felon. Nobody can play a hangdog-spazz role like this better than Gosling and to his immense credit, he eventually gets us to rally behind Luke's cause. This final phase of the first act -- with some ingenious motorcycle chase scenes and an abbreviated shootout -- is the only portion of the film that shows any kind of pizzazz or pulse.
Act two begins with beat cop Avery (Bradley Cooper) stumbling on to a life-threatening situation that he not only survives but one that makes him a hero in the process. Cianfrance gets big points here for making clear that the definition of "hero" -- at least how it's bandied about by law enforcement types -- covers a wide and ambiguous swath and even though Avery doesn't buy into his newfound lofty status, he starts using it as a professional stepping stone. It is when Avery goes from being a do-the-right-thing Serpico cop into just another shallow opportunist does the narrative permanently jump the tracks. The big problem is we're only about halfway through and the remainder turns into a laborious crawl.
Thanks only to what has preceded it, we have an idea of what's taking place in the final third of the film but for all intents and purposes, it's an entirely different movie. The sons of Luke and Avery -- in something of a "Rich Man, Poor Man" kind of riff -- become uncomfortable friends and their mutual love of booze, drugs and misguided mayhem transforms the narrative into a comedy-free version of a teen-angst, coming-of-age affair. It doesn't help matters that the performer playing Luke's introverted son Jason (Dane DeHaan) runs acting circles around Avery's silver-spoon offspring A.J. (Emery Cohen -- Marlon Brando by way of James Franco).
Based on the tragic nature of the subject matter and the time span (15 years), Cianfrance and his two co-writers would have served themselves and the audience far better had they presented their story a la Tarantino or Coppola and gone non-linear. It might have been a tad more confusing at the start but would have certainly provided for a much more engaging view and lent the production the epic generational crime thriller air it was so obviously hoping to achieve. (Focus Features)