Hmmm…a multigenerational small town crime epic starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and directed by Blue Valentine’s Derek Cianfrance. Boy, The Place Beyond The Pines sure sounds like a prime candidate for awards bait doesn’t it? The movie even premiered at TIFF, where Oscar hopefuls go to be launched or die, and yet somehow the movie is coming out in the middle of April instead of the fall awards crunch. I wonder why that could be? Maybe because it’s unfortunately a disappointment, but thankfully at least not a disappointment of the soul-crushing variety. From moment to moment, The Place Beyond the Pines is a strong piece of work comprised of terse dialogue, pain-eyed performances, sudden bursts of violence, and heavy thematic resonance. Unfortunately, it never quite holds together to deliver anything as profound as the somberly existential tone seems to promise. It’s the same complaint many folks tossed at Gosling’s last arty crime movie Drive, but at least that movie still worked as a surreal dreamscape of ultraviolence, crime clichés, and so-wrong-its-right miscasting to make up for the hollow core. The trouble with Cianfrance’s work here is that he takes the material so seriously that when the movie eventually opens up to reveal an empty center, there aren’t enough sensual surface pleasures to compensate. It’s just a big dumb arty crime movie signifying nothing.
The biggest problem with The Place Beyond the Pines is that it’s not really one movie, it’s three movies awkwardly crammed together. The first movie is essentially a remake of Drive with carneys. Once again Gosling plays a romantic loner stunt driver (this time with a motorcycle in stead of a car and working in a circus instead of on movie sets) who decides to give his life meaning by supporting a broken family with a beautiful mother (Eva Mendes) through crime. He robs banks in idiotic tattoos and tries to be a father, but it doesn’t work out as well as the bonehead imagined. Just when you start getting into that story a second one starts starring Bradley Cooper as a Serpico for the suburbs waging a war on dirty cops (one of whom is Ray Liotta, obviously) that prowl and shake down low income housing and strip malls. You’ll think Cooper is a way to old to be playing the beat cop with a conscious, but that’s only because a third movie will be starting up soon that takes place years in the future in which he plays a version of the character that he’s too young to accurately portray. Thankfully, he’s not the protagonist anymore. Nope this story is about two kids, Gosling’s ne’er do well son destined to turn from geek to criminal (Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan) and Cooper’s ne’er do well son (Emory Cohen) who’s clearly already on the path to being a criminal because he looks, speaks, and acts like Andrew Dice Clay Jr. And so blah-blah-blah sins of the father blah-blah-blah generations of crime.
It’s easy to see what Cianfrance is attempting to do with the movie, but sadly it’s also just as easy to see that he doesn’t quite pull it off. This is supposed to be a grand multigenerational crime epic like The Godfather, Part II for the trailer park set. Trouble is that the story isn’t nearly profound enough to carry the themes and the main actors are simply too famous and attractive to play believable small town cops n’ robbers. Gosling in particular just trots out his Drive poses again only this time they feel even more inauthentic and predictable (and whoever designed his silly tattoos like the crying knife below his eye deserves a slap in the face for rat-at-the-end-of-The-Departed levels of distractingly obviousness symbolism).
Cooper fairs better, but is severely hurt by the fact that he isn’t young enough for the rookie cop section or old enough for the middle age portions of his roles. Both of them are talented enough actors to be compelling in their roles, but neither of them looks like the type of person they are playing which kills all of Cianfrance’s attempts at handheld realism. When Ben Mendelsohn pops up in a small role as Gosling’s bank-robbin’ buddy, it’s a harsh reminder of how much more realistic dirt bag criminals feel when they aren’t played by People magazine cover models and simply casting the central roles with actors like Mendelsohn would have improved the movie immeasurably. The strongest section of the film is probably the third chapter based around Gosling and Cooper’s kids simply because that plot line has been done to death and the actors are more believable in their roles. Unfortunately this section doesn’t come until at least 100 minutes into the movie and by then the fact that the plot is stopping and starting again for a third time will likely have many viewers shifting in their seats if not bolting for the exit.
All that being said, Derek Cianfrance can’t be accused of delivering a total disaster. He works well enough with actors and has such a strong sense of realistic white trash production design that there are huge portions of the movie as raw and compelling as his work in Blue Valentine. Unfortunately, some troubling miscasting, a reliance on tiresome crime movie clichés as plot-engines, and an unsatisfying stop-n-go three part narrative prevent those strengths from ever extending beyond individual scenes and sequences. This probably isn’t the genre that Cianfrance should be working on and unless the tone is as colorfully surreal as a Nicolas Winding Refn joint, it’s probably not a reliable genre for Gosling either.
Place Beyond the Pines offers a collection of good ideas and talented collaborators that unfortunately just never comes together in the powerful way intended. It’s probably a movie best suited for Ryan Gosling or Bradley Cooper completists only. The good news for the producers is that at the moment that audience is large enough to make it a hit. Let’s just hope it’s not a big enough hit to finance Place Beyond The Pines 2: Still Pinin’. Now that would be a genuine disaster, not merely a mild disappointment.