Promised Land (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Promised Land (2012)

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Here's the dreamAndrew INDIFFERENCE BannerPromised Land is Gus Van Sant's comfortable return to a well-worn pair of pants.  It takes another two actors, in this case Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who wrote the screenplay together.  Tosses in a couple of elderly mentor types who both want to help, in the case of Frances McDormand, and teach, which is the niche Hal Holbrook fills.  There's the antagonistic could-be friend played by Krasinski, and a few inspiring speeches along with way.

Van Sant has already made this film three times.  At this point it's become a very polite game of Mad Libs instead of a personal mission statement.  All he has to do is throw in those described elements, leave onscreen for about an hour and a half, throw in some pleasing landscape shots and - voilà - instant harmless but pleasing film.  On its face this isn't a bad thing, but the results are so blandly pleasing that the director of arty experiments like Elephant and better pleasantries like Good Will Hunting should have other things to do.

John Krasinski is a bit overbearing on the charm but has a lot of funny moments.

John Krasinski is a bit overbearing on the charm but has a lot of funny moments.

At least while Promised Land is running there's usually enough happening onscreen to keep engaged.  Steve (Damon) and his partner Sue (McDormand), have been contracted by a large energy company to convince a small Pennsylvania farming town to give up its property rights to extract energy by the process of fracking.  This is a contentious enough issue that the town, despite its eagerness to get some money for their future, researches into the effects.  Then, during a town hall meeting, a local teacher (Holbrook) asks some pertinent questions about the effects of fracking and attracts the attention of a member of a local environmental group (Krasinski) willing to give some passive resistance against the persuasive corporate types.

The first thirty minutes of Steve and Sue coming into town are filled with a lot of funny, small conversations, and good observations about the rhythm of a small town.  No one is the rube they seem to be, either in the obvious brilliance of the professor or the more observational intelligence of the people who see that Steve just bought his clothes to fit in.  While giving full respect to their intelligence, the performances of the townsfolk and direction of Van Sant also hint at their desperation without it becoming a melodramatic issue.  Van Sant keeps the camera tight on each face, switching between the pleading eyes but controlling voices of the townsfolk and the easy charm of Steve and Sue.

It's pleasant, and continues to when the environmentalist arrives and forms a often funny and contentious relationship with Steve.  There are more great observations about Steve who, despite his genuine empathy at wanting to get these people set in life, just don't understand that some folks are happy doing what they're doing.  It's a cheesy message, and one that glides through the film a bit too easily, but results in a fine payoff when Steve talks about the townsfolk finally being able to turn away from everything with some eff you money and receives an appropriate smack in return.  Steve is one of the rare folks actually blinded by good intentions, and his arc is pretty satisfying to watch.

A bit of teasing between Steve and Sue. It's fun if inconsequential in the long-run.

A bit of teasing between Steve and Sue. It's fun if inconsequential in the long-run.

If that's all the film was it might squeak by with a recommendation from me but there is so much plot baggage otherwise.  There are many attempts to show that Sue has a life outside of their traveling duo but they are just conversations with her kid about baseball and don't even have the thinnest connection to the celebration of small town life in this film.  A bit more successful is her flirtation with a very funny store clerk (Titus Welliver), whose pragmatic approach suggests a much more nuanced and sly approach the film could have taken with its corporatism.  Unfortunately there is a completely useless character, a cute teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt), whose only function is to be the object of Steve and the environmentalists affections.

Finally, there's the matter of that third act, which I would have gladly watched with my eyes in my palms forcing an endless sigh if I didn't need to watch the film.  With about thirty minutes to go there is a twist introduced that is a desperate sign that Damon and Krasinski had no idea where they wanted this film to go.  They do write themselves into an intriguing corner, but the eventual effect is one of corporate ex machina in the way victory is snatched from defeat.  A couple of lazily inspirational speeches round out the film which then leaves what I can only assume is a very confused audience to shuffle back to whatever they were doing before the film started.

At it's best there is a lot of pleasing and occasionally witty interplay between the performers  But pleasant isn't enough to build an entire movie from, nor is it really necessary to give repeated edutainment lessons on fracking.  I have no doubt that this film was made with clear hearts, I just wouldn't have minded some interest along with it.

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Promised Land - TailPromised Land (2012)

Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Screenplay written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski.
Starring Damon, Krasinski, and Frances McDormand.

Posted by Andrew

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