Opens Fri April 9
A Sundance favorite left moldering on the shelf for over a year, The United States of Leland is yet another painfully earnest attempt to bring the secret crimes of white-collar America to light. Focusing on the aftershocks of a seemingly senseless teenage murder, and told in a series of distracting flashbacks and voice-overs, the film attempts to simultaneously take a telescopic and microscopic view of its subject matter, resulting in a self-important mishmash of good intentions and stale executions.
Writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge clearly has ambition to burn, but his attempt to explore every conceivable side of the convoluted story leads to a domino effect of narrative misjudgments and questionable moral stances. Is using the death of an autistic boy as the equivalent of American Beauty's plastic bag really a good idea? Did Hoge intend for the overwhelming majority of the guilt to be placed squarely on his oblivious female characters? Isn't it more than a little troubling that the blame for the crime is eventually relegated to practically everyone in the neighborhood, except for the one who actually did the deed?
The overqualified cast, including Don Cheadle, Jena Malone, and Ann Magnuson, does what it can, but is ultimately stymied by the limitations of the script. As he showed in The Believer, Ryan Gosling has some ferocious chops, but he can't do much with the Holy Fool conceit of his central character, who is repeatedly called upon to gaze wistfully into the distance while spouting Deep Thoughts that feel like they were scrawled on a notebook during study hall. Only Kevin Spacey really registers in his few brief scenes as a Mailer-esque novelist, with welcome flickers of his old magnificent bastardry before being quickly cast back to the sidelines.
Hear me, young filmmakers, please. The shocking revelations of suburbia's dark underbelly have been examined enough for a long while. Read Peyton Place. Watch some Billy Wilder movies. Put down your muckrakes. Let it rest.