By KJ Doughton | October 10, 2003

Mystic River” is the new bad movie from Clint Eastwood which takes Dennis Lehane’s best-selling thriller and turns it into an inert mess that clocks in at 137 minutes but feels like 137 hours.

The film opens in the 1970s in a less-desirable section of Boston. Three boys–Jimmy (the wiseguy with red hair), Sean (the good kid) and Dave (the big doofus)–are playing in the street when a car pulls up and two men posing as cops begin harassing the kids. Dave is taken away in the car and the men hold him in pedophiliac captivity for four days. Dave escapes but the emotional damage is severe–so severe that he grows up to be Tim Robbins pretending to be a dumb, creepy, chronically unemployed guy with a timid, even dumber wife (Marcia Gay Harden, who seems to be channeling Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker).

Sean grows up to be a cop, played by Kevin Bacon. Sean has an annoying wife who left him while she was pregnant and constantly calls him but refuses to say a word. Sadly, no one bothered to throw in one of those “Can you hear me now?” taglines from the telephone commercials (although “Mystic River” has some fine cameo appearances by Jack Daniels, Jell-O Pudding and Sprite–and at one point Sprite actually becomes the heart of a crucial scene). The third kid, Jimmy, grows up without his red hair (it gets coal black with a touch of grey over time) and now bears a striking resemblance to Sean Penn. This Jimmy did a two-year jail stint rather than snitch on his hoodlum pals, but while he now runs a convenience store he still has his fingers in the underworld and chums with a miscreant sibling duo called the Savage Brothers. He has a wife, too (played by Laura Linney) who doesn’t do anything in the film until the final 10 minutes when she lets loose with a Lady Macbeth-worthy soliloquy which seems to have been inserted from another story.

Oh, there is also Laurence Fishburne as Sean’s partner on the police force. He’s the token black comedy relief here: he doesn’t have a wife or even a girlfriend, and his character is named Whitey. Will someone please call the NAACP?

Okay, so what’s the point? Well, Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter is murdered in her car in a park (or, in the film’s approximation of the Boston accent, in hah cah in da pahk). The same night, Dave comes home with blood on his clothing, a knife gash across his belly, and a banged up hand. Dave’s wife thinks he killed Jimmy’s daughter. Soon the cops are starting to suspect that. And then Jimmy suspects it.

Yet another possible killer emerges: the career criminal whose plea deal put Jimmy in jail years ago. It seems the bullet from the crime scene matched a bullet in a 1984 liquor store hold-up. And as luck would have it, this guy’s son was going to run off to Las Vegas with Jimmy’s daughter for a quickie wedding the day after she was killed.

“Mystic River” has the foundations for both a tragedy and a mystery, but instead the film is directed like a comedy. Specifically, a Mack Sennett silent comedy with a surplus of exaggerated, overstated, Acting 101 performances in which the actors seem have been emoting on camera while running an inner rehearsal on how to thank the Academy. The only fun in this plodding production is trying to figure out who gives the worst performance. Is it Sean Penn, complete with gnashing teeth and tightly flexed biceps, doing a second-rate Kirk Douglas? Or is it Laurence Fishburne, who does such a killer Lou Rawls-style self-assured turn that he literally glides through his scenes? Or is it Marcia Gay Harden, whose gaping mouth and wide eye stare recall a fish on ice? Or Laura Linney, who fills her mouth with so many flattened vowels that chalk on a blackboard would be more soothing to the ears? Or perhaps it is the joker in the pack: the eternal ham Eli Wallach, who makes a surprise cameo as the liquor storeowner? Walloch huffs and puffs so much that you wish he could blow the film down.

But the real bad performance here is behind the camera: Clint Eastwood, who infects the film with the same crap he’s brought to most of the films he’s directed. Scenes are badly blocked, lighting is either a ripoff of silent German expressionist art movies or is badly illuminated to the point that all color is drained, key players are miscast (Kevin Bacon in particular, who barely registers on-screen here), the music is wildly inappropriate (scored by Eastwood himself, borrowing heavily from Carl Orff), and the film runs a good 20 minutes too long (the final dozen minutes make no sense whatsoever). Yes, Eastwood has directed a few great films like “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Unforgiven” and “The Bridges of Madison County”–but he’s directed a lot of s**t like “Bloodwork,” “Absolute Power,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “True Crime,” “Space Cowboys,” “Heartbreak Ridge,” “The Gauntlet” and “Pale Rider” (an unnecessary remake of another film he directed, the so-so “High Plains Drifter”). And “Mystic River” falls into the usual muck he’s been churning out for years.

The best thing about “Mystic River”–the river. At least it doesn’t overact and it doesn’t tax our patience.

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