Though best-known for his Oscar-nominated role as a Mafia don in Prizzi’s Honor, the late comic actor William Hickey made something of a specialty of playing characters created by Kurt Vonnegut. He originated the role of Looseleaf Harper in the stage version of Happy Birthday, Wanda June and reprised it in the movie version. But it was in the made-for-TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu, a pastiche of several Vonnegut stories, that Hickey got to deliver one of his funniest lines ever. As Stony Stevenson, an inept astronaut who finds himself abruptly transported to a phone booth in upstate New York after his spaceship passes through a warp in spacetime (what Vonnegut called a “chrono-synclastic infundibulum”), he phones his NASA bosses for further instructions. Bewildered, they ask Stony where he’s calling from; he checks the phone directory in the booth and says, “Schenectady. I’m in Schenectady.”
As Vonnegut knew well from having lived there for several years and worked at its General Electric plant, Schenectady (like Poughkeepsie) is one of those places that constitutes a joke all on its own. Such has long been the fate of the Capital District community: to get no respect from the media – until now. In the new movie The Place beyond the Pines, directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), humble, gritty, silly-sounding Schenectady becomes almost a character, with many moods, both dark and light. Even the title purports to be derived from the Mohawk meaning of the city’s name. There also is an actual ominous-looking place beyond some pines in the story, where a key character will dodge his karma once and then ultimately return to face it.
If for no other reason, upstaters will find this movie worth watching just for the pleasure of spotting places they’ve been. It opens on the Altamont Fairgrounds, where Ryan Gosling’s famed prettyboy looks are buried in tattoos in the role of Luke Glanton, an uneducated, inarticulate drifter who’s poetry in motion aboard a motorcycle. At the fair he runs into Romina (Eva Mendes), a young woman with whom he had a fling when his traveling stunt-riding show last visited the place a year previously. He finds out that she has borne him a son, and inexplicably acquires a sudden burning mission to be a good Dad to him, despite the fact that Romina is now living with another man. Just like carnie Billy Bigelow in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, finding his inner father leads inexorably to a life of crime, which constitutes Act I of this very blatantly three-act (and very long) movie.
The Place beyond the Pines is an ambitious film that takes itself seriously – not so surprisingly, considering that Cianfrance learned his craft at the knee of the great indie director Stan Brakhage. The cinematography is brilliantly atmospheric, the acting at times transcendent. Unfortunately, the movie is wildly uneven, and when it hits a wrong note, it hits it with a vengeance.
We get our first tipoff really early on, when Luke first spots Romina, svelte and braless in a skin-tight tee-shirt that leaves nothing to the imagination. Then, in practically the next scene, we are asked to believe that this is the body of a woman who gave birth three months previously. (If you’re already deducing that the film’s female characters are going to be little more than ciphers, you get the brass ring.) Moving right along, there’s some hokey heartstring-tugging as the macho motorhead sheds a tear during the recitation of the “Our Father” as he hides in the back row of the church at his son’s christening. Cue portentous generational-saga music here.
But such unthought-out or ham-handed moments are the least of The Place beyond the Pines’ problems. It just can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s an action movie, a cynical tale of a hopelessly corrupt police department, two inspiring parallel stories of men who’ve made bad choices trying to redeem themselves, a moral fable of fathers and sons or any of several other themes and subplots. It’s trying to wear too many hats at once, and requires 140 minutes of running time to do so.
Act II is the story of Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a judge’s son, former law student and novice cop who blunders into hero status as the guy who puts an end to biker bandit Luke Glanton’s short career as a bank robber. Avery claims to love his police work even while he’s scheming to run for district attorney; quickly gets entangled with a bunch of rogue cops led by Ray Liotta (in the usual skeevy Ray Liotta role); plays Mr. Clean and turns the tables on his crooked colleagues, but then parlays the sting into a political career. Act III happens 15 years later when the two male leads’ sons meet in high school, unaware at first of the historical connection between their fathers, become friends and then get busted for drugs, which leads to lots of chickens coming home to roost all around.
Sound all too complicated? It is. The fault lies mainly in the screenplay by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, which does indeed feel like it was written by a committee. It has passages that soar, but they’re punctuated by sporadic thuds of bad dialogue, and whatever dramatic capital they build up is frittered away again and again on irresolute narrative meanderings.
Some fine acting turns are the best reason to invest two hours and 20 minutes of your time watching The Place beyond the Pines, if you’re not especially interested in the Schenectady settings. The character of Luke, who doesn’t have many lines in proportion to his time onscreen, is a good fit for Gosling’s talents. Avery is a busier part, and Cooper gives it his all, but founders somewhat in the blurriness (as opposed to a healthy complexity) of the filmmakers’ conception of the character.
But the golden discovery here is Ben Mendelsohn in the role of Robin Van Der Zee, the local auto mechanic who gives Luke a job and a place to live while he attempts to make a role for himself in his infant son’s life. It’s Robin who sets Luke off on his crime spree; but Mendelsohn plays totally against the “criminal type,” winning the viewer’s affection as a nice, gentle, genial guy who just happens to have turned to bank robbery at times in his life when there was no other work to be found.
If you’ve lived long enough in upstate New York, you’ve met guys like Robin for sure. Like Jacki Weaver as the Mom in Silver Linings Playbook, you’d never peg this guy for an Australian actor. And whenever he’s onscreen, Mendelsohn totally owns it. He manages to hold his head up with some semblance of dignity even when he’s forced to utter a line as horrible as “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.” I for one will be keeping an eye on Mendelsohn’s career henceforth. And for that bit of serendipity, this sojourn in Schenectady was worthwhile.