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Movie Review: The United States of Leland (2003)

I think I'd rather live in a Red State.
The United States of Leland (2003)

Starring: Don Cheadle, Ryan Gosling, Chris Klein, Jena Malone, Lena Olin, Kevin Spacey, Michelle Williams, Martin Donovan, Ann Magnuson, Kerry Washington, Sherilyn Fenn

Directed by: Matthew Ryan Hoge

I saw a trailer for this awhile ago online, and it intrigued me. After watching Hotel Rwanda, a while back, I decided I wanted to see this even more due to Don Cheadle's involvement. So, we rented it.

And boy do I wish we hadn't. If I were to steal mightygodking's equation system, I'd say this film was like American Beauty plus Donnie Darko minus the quality. It's a really bad movie disguised as being a good one, leading unsuspecting viewers like myself to give it a try. If only I'd read some reviews before hand, because this star-studded, intelligent-looking film was almost universally panned.

For those of you who have never heard of the movie until now (of which, I presume there are many lucky people who haven't), I'll summarise it for you. Ryan Gosling plays the titular character of Leland, who also serves as the film's narrator (a la Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, but without the intelligent observations on life). Leland goes to jail for stabbing a retarded kid to death, and the movie attempts to figure out why he did it. He seems to be a nice boy (if not mentally absent), and is portrayed by Gosling with a complete lack of violence, anger, or agenda (and if you're waiting for him to reveal his sinister side later in the movie, don't waste your time-- it's not that kind of movie). Once in juvenile prison, Leland goes to classes taught by Pearl Madison, ably portrayed by Don Cheadle (who is incapable of anything but quality, even when in bad movies). Pearl attempts to unlock the mystery of Leland in an attempt to figure out how such a kid could do such a thing, and so he could write a book about it later (along with being a juvenile prison teacher, Pearl is also an aspiring author).

The relationship between Leland and Pearl is the driving narrative behind the film, as their talks unveil Leland's past to the audience. However, to call it the central focus would imply that this meandering film had one. It does not. The United States of Leland boasts an impressive cast, which seems to be to the detriment of the film. It seems as though writer/director Matthew Ryan Hodge (don't worry that you haven't heard of him, he's never done anything) had to give EVERY character a personal storyarc and personality flaw in order to get the actors to play them. Most of these traits and stories are clichéd, and most go underdeveloped and unresolved.

I'll try and break them down here: Martin Donovan and Ann Magnuson are the parents of the slain retarded boy (I love how the movie kept calling the kid "retarded", never "mentally disabled". That part made me laugh inside), they apparently have a cold relationship, because all suburban marriages in contemporary cinema must be cold. Their other two kids are Michelle Williams, who is apparently an aspiring actress about to attend college, and Jena Malone, who plays the same troubled teen-archetype she always plays, this time with a heroine addiction. Malone was also the girlfriend of Leland, which gives him his link to his victim. Williams' boyfriend, who was orphaned and came to live with the family, and is a baseball player looking to go to the same college as his girlfriend, is played by Chris Klein. He ends up doing more with his character than any of the other bit players, managing to steal the movie at times. Lena Olin is Leland's mother, who seems to be perpetually sad for some reason. Kevin Spacey (also the executive producer) is Leland's cold and absentee father, who is a famed novelist. Eventually, Sherilyn Fenn will show up to put a wrinkle in Leland's story-- if you even care at that point. Oh yeah, and there's a drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, a couple of fellow juvees, and a co-worker of Pearl's with whom he has an affair on his long distance girlfriend with (played by Kerry Washington).

Sorry if all that synopsis and character breakdown took so long. If it seemed meaningless and boring, then you've just experienced a bit of what I did during the 108 minutes I spent watching the movie. But the unruly supporting cast of over-wrought clichés is the least of this film's crimes. The biggest one is that the whole exercise is entirely pointless. We aren't given a fascinating look into a troubled mind, we aren't given an effective explanation, we aren't given much of anything. Given that it sucked so much, I'm gonna go ahead and spoil the ending for you so that you never have to see it: Leland stabbed the retard because all Leland could see in the world was sadness, and wanted to spare Corky (or whatever the victim's name was) the sadness in his eyes. It's like the worst emo band in the world made an album, and titled it "The World Is Sad, So I Killed A Retard". Oh, and Leland dies in the end, in a sequence so reliant on unbelievable coincidences that it would have ruined the movie, if the movie didn't already suck. Of course he dies in the end, because that made the movie so deep.

I'm giving the movie 1.5 stars, because the actors themselves all did a pretty good job with the junk they were given. The scenes with Cheadle and Gosling together were even interesting on some levels. But, to paraphrase the film itself, you have to believe that movies are more than the sum of their parts, kiddo.

1.5/5

Tags: don_cheadle, jena_malone, kerry_washington, kevin_spacey, michael_peña, michelle_williams, movies, ryan_gosling
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