Remember back in the late nineteen hundred and nineties when two handsome boys from Bahston arrived on the scene and wowed everyone with an original screenplay about a socially challenged blue-collar genius also from Bahston? And then afterward, everyone debated which of the two handsome Bahstonites was the most talented? And remember how, for a long time, all signs pointed to it being the blond one?
These days, I’m starting to believe we had it all wrong. Ben Affleck is still not a great actor, but somewhere along the way he became a good one. He also became a great writer and director, while Matt Damon plateaued. Now it seems that Damon is on a gently sloping downward trajectory; first with the treacle-laden “We Bought a Zoo” and now the face-slap of a morality tale that is “Promised Land.”
Now before you go accusing me of having no heart, I should tell you that I love both Matt Damon (usually) and the environment. Furthermore, I hate greedy capitalist behemoths that want to exploit simple farm folk and rape the land (grrrr). But that doesn’t mean I have to like a mediocre film about a greedy capitalist behemoth that wants to exploit simple farm folk and rape the land. “Promised Land” is an insulting delivery system for what would otherwise be a very valuable social message about the dying American Heartland.
The credits read like fantasy indie film draft picks: Directed by Gus Van Sant. Screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski based on a story by Dave Eggers. Starring Damon, Krasinski and Frances McDormand with Rosemarie Dewitt thrown in just cuz a man can’t have true redemption unless a beautiful woman decides to love him. Damon plays career spin-doctor Steve Butler, a salesman for Global Crosspower Solutions (a name as ominous as it is vague). Global (Mr. Crosspower Solutions was its father’s name) seeks to buy drilling rights for America’s farmland in order to access the lucrative natural gas that lies beneath. Steve would be (and is) the first to tell you that he’s not a bad guy. He’s just a simple farm boy himself, hailing from a small Iowa town financially ruined after their primary industry (a Caterpillar plant) went under. He wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to any other small towns. He wants so badly to help, that he’s willing to sink to incredible depths of self-delusion in order to justify his job (emphasis on the word “incredible”). For a slick corporate shill, he’s more a rube than the local yokels he’s trying to swindle.
And that’s the point. In case you missed it (which you couldn’t possibly), Steve has been buying his own bullshit for too long. So much so that he completely crumbles whenever anyone challenges him. The writers borrow liberally from the plot of “Doc Hollywood” to deliver their messages about the dangers of corporate greed in general and fracking in particular. They assert that these are gray area issues, whilst drenching everything in black and white.
Presumably, Steve has brought his show to small towns all across the country. Yet somehow, the town of McKinley, PA is the first one to give him any trouble. His method of looking and talking like one of them is normally foolproof. But once a grizzled old science teacher (Hal Holbrook) calls him out on the dangers of fracking, Steve, along with his cynical partner, Sue (McDormand) must embark on a door-to-door campaign to win the town’s people back before the issue is put to a vote. An environmental activist named Dustin (Krasinski) poses additional challenges as he both literally and figuratively cock blocks Steve’s efforts.
It’s not all bad news. A talented cast acts its way around the ham-handed script. Krasinski is so believable in his role that it’s tempting to shout, “No! I don’t have a minute for the environment” at him whenever he’s on screen. McDormand uses her extremely expressive face to add complexity to her hard-nosed business lady character. Sadly, Rosemary Dewitt couldn’t save her character from Blandville, as she didn’t have much to work with. As a sweet schoolteacher named Alice, her character is perfectly content playing a pawn in the pissing contest between Steve and Dustin. One gets the distinct impression that Alice really doesn’t care with whom she ends up and she never seems to have much of an opinion about anything.
Damon saves most of the meat for his own character. He’s not too shabby playing a man who resists having his bubble burst even as the pin is puncturing the surface. That’s one thing they got right. People don’t usually have life-changing revelations over night. It takes time and lots of people telling you that you’re wrong before you start to believe it. Some will even take their skewed world views to their graves. Of course, we know that won’t happen here.
As a Commie liberal, it pains me to find so much fault with “Promised Land.” Those boys have a lot of good ideas and I know they mean well. Perhaps they’ve seen too many Hollywood Schmaltzfests to understand how to get their point across subtly. Furthermore, they don’t seem to have ever met any actual women because they have no idea how to write them. If you see only one film this year by a handsome actor from Bahston, make it “Argo.”