Oliver Stone: U Turn (1997) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Oliver Stone: U Turn (1997)

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Bobby (Sean Penn) is a wounded drifter looking to make good on some bad bets.  His luck grows ever more bitter as some car troubles lead him into a dusty town on the edge of nowhere.  There a series of colorful townsfolk, including a deadpan mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton) and a troublesome couple (Claire Daines and Joaquin Phoenix), seem dead-set on keeping him in town.  He attracts the eye of local beauty Grace (Jennifer Lopez), who wants Bobby's body, and her husband Jake (Nick Nolte), who wants Bobby to kill Grace.  Oliver Stone's U Turn sees him taking a break from political film-making to try and work some genre magic.Smokin' awayKyle Commentary BannerOliver Stone reportedly said that U Turn was his attempt at making a movie he would have wanted to watch as a teenager. This makes sense only if, as a teenager, he drank a lot. The movie is a spectacular mess, a glorious display of badness the failure of which is enjoyable for not long enough to recommend. Stone seems to have made it in his free time, allowing scenes to be shot while he hung around the food table and recycling visual styles and narrative techniques from earlier films after the fact. The music, by legendary Ennio Morricone, perfectly encompasses the problems with the movie: it is hilariously disconnected and out-of-touch with the events on-screen, an element of form that intrudes on the viewing experience almost as much as Jennifer Lopez' acting.

The movie, we soon learn, is about Bobby, a former tennis pro on the run from some hard Vegas types who he owes money to. In an early flashback scene, we see his debtors cut off two of his fingers with garden sheers, followed by a shot reminding us that, tragically, Bobby will never again be able to throw a tennis ball straight up in the air for a serve. Here's an idea: if you want to make a sleazy, genre-level crime film, don't choose as your one subversive element making the protagonist a haunted tennis-playing gambler. Not unless you're also willing to twist the other archetypes to similarly absurd lengths.

Oliver. Man. Get out of your own goddamn way. The story here is cliché and predictable, but the actors are perfectly capable of elevating a slimy, lurid genre exercise into a piece of wonderful pulp entertainment—just let them do it. We're at a point where we don't need every frame and edit to remind us we're watching An Oliver Stone Production.

Thanks to the clueless direction, the movie plays like a circus where all the players are working on different acts. There's Nick Nolte, who is almost unable to fail in a role, and here he hams it up gloriously while wearing Dustin Hoffman's dentures from Hook. Sean Penn is, of course, perfectly good as a shambling drifter (though not so convincing as an ex-tennis pro). Billy Bob Thornton's character deserves his own movie at times.

But let's go back for a moment to the score, which sounds like it was recorded by the Looney Tunes ensemble. This is the one perplexingly, fascinatingly distinct thing about the film. U Turn seems like a disastrously extended version of something you may see on Funny or Die. If it were a 20-minute short, I would probably love it, because at that level I could believe it was an easy melodramatic send up of some genre conventions. At feature-length it's either a horrible miscalculation or a joke that overstays its welcome.Worst game of TwisterAndrewCommentaryBannerGiven the distracting tendency of the soundtrack to wander from jazz to modern rock and then country over the course of the same scene I think the Looney Tunes comparison is apt.  There are a lot of recognizable faces onscreen doing riffs on characters that they had either played before to great effect or would do so in the future.  At best, it reminded me of the shorts where animated versions of Dean Martin and Humphrey Bogart would cavort around to jazz.

However, the good moments are rare, and Stone botches what could be a perfectly greasy genre flick with a bunch of dead-ends and a bad lead to anchor the film around.  This isn’t to knock Penn’s performance, which is perfectly functional, but the writing.  Stone’s world is so off kilter here that the 3-fingered tennis playing con man is the straight man reacting to nymphomaniac plotters, wanna-be cowboys, and Nick Nolte.  That should be a formula for insanity but Stone’s decision to write Penn as a (mostly) reasonable person going crazy with all these people makes Penn disconnected from the action in a weird way.

I believe Stone when he says he was trying to make a film he would have enjoyed as a kid but that doesn’t mean he should have approached making the film in that exact mindset.  There are troubling signs right off the bat with that erratic soundtrack and then the hand drawn scribblings over the opening credits that look like they were pasted on a stick and bounced in front of the camera.  That camera, which lingers in too many sweaty close-ups of ugly people and their saliva coated soda bottles, never reveals a perspective other than “Look at this gross thing!”  Again, exactly like a kid.

My reaction to this was weird because of the literally childish attention paid to the direction and the adult themes, which aren’t presented through the same filter.  It’s an odd counter to Natural Born Killers, which was deliberately off-putting and proudly so.  Here he’s trying to make something entertaining but won’t let go of his child-like vision.  This is a shame, because Nolte is a national treasure and when he rubs his palm on a sweaty Penn and applies it to his own skin like perfume we see the entertaining pit the film would have been better served to mine.

My theory is Stone was trying to make his own version of True Romance.  That film was written by Quentin Tarantino, who also wrote the original script for Natural Born Killers before Stone and his team turned it into a completely different beast.   True Romance succeeds exactly where U Turn does not with its Elvis and girl crazy hero as opposed to the dirty fingerless Penn.  They even follow roughly the same trajectory of getting a guy in trouble for love and surrounding him with a colorful cast of crazies.  It’s clear Stone appreciated Tarantino, but Stone’s emulation falls flat here.Seduction

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryIs it the soundtrack's constant use of spring noises at inappropriate times? The not-so-subtle misogyny we've already noted in other Stone films? The fact that I enjoyed some parts of the movie more than is probably warranted and certainly not for the right reasons?


Tiny Andrew CommentaryIssues with female representation aside (which this film can be rightfully derided for) the furthest I can go is with the mud caked saliva and spittle each of the characters spew.  But that’s more cause for disgust than controversy, and even then only for one stomach lurching scene.  All things considered, U Turn is pretty tepid.




How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryIt seems like this kind of dusty, everyone's-dead-at-the-end, small-time criminal story was especially popular in the mid-90s. But is it ever not popular?

I'm trying too hard here — he doesn't.


Tiny Andrew CommentaryNo, you’ve got a valid point in comparing it to the nihilistic crime pieces that were coming out at the time.  They each tried to distinguish themselves in different ways, and U Turn is no exception with its dirty take on the film exercise.  It’s just that instead of hitting the zeitgeist this time, his film just becomes a reflection of it.


The most romance in this film

That's fine, but is it any good?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryYour comparison to True Romance is excellent. That's a movie where the colorful characters seemed rooted at least in some common reality, and the outlandish elements punctuated the storytelling because the entire movie didn't exist on the same ridiculous level. It has fun with itself without insisting on the audience's acknowledgement.

Stone's approach here is loud in mostly the wrong ways, and it obscures the only real value of the film: the performances. Some of the performances.

Billy Bob Thornton and Nick Nolte.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryI can recommend U Turn to Nick Nolte enthusiasts and Oliver Stone completionists.  Nolte’s performance is the kind of lurid fun Stone wants the film to be and is worth it for his fans.  Beyond that, it’s a boring genre piece and little else.

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Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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