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Getting Stoned with De Niro

Ed Rampell: Will moviegoers feel they’d rather not feel so all alone, and that everybody must get Stone-d?
Edward Northon and Robert De Niro in Stone

Edward Norton and Robert De Niro in Stone

In this prison drama Robert De Niro plays probation officer Jack Mabry, who must rule on the upcoming possible release of the quirky, tattooed, cornrow-ed Stone (Edward Norton). During their first meeting, Stone discusses what a Rick James-like super sex freak his wife is, and how he can’t wait to rejoin her on the outside so he can get his freak on again with Lucetta. As a critic, I try to avoid plot spoilers, so suffice it to say that at the onset, in that best film noir-type tradition, a movie ménage-a-trois looms on the horizon, with the manipulative Stone using his wife as a pawn and ploy to get him sprung from the joint.

Milla Jovovich

Milla Jovovich

So far so good with Stone’s plot, penned by Angus MacLachlan (2005’s Junebug). But the story must have looked far better on paper than it does onscreen, because Stone has a fatal flaw. Cast as Lucetta, Milla Jovovich -- who was so fetching in 1991’s Return to the Blue Lagoon and 1999’s Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, and has carved out a career for herself in the recurring nightmare known as the Resident Evil franchise – simply does not live up to the billing her behind bars hubby has given her. In order to lure the career probation officer off the straight and narrow as he nears retirement age, and thereby jeopardize the pension, reputation, etc., as well as marriage Mabry has spent a lifetime building up, this film’s femme fatale must be truly extraordinarily alluring.

But truth be told, although Jovovich’s vixen is kinky enough, the supposedly 35-year-old (she looks older) former supermodel has lost a lot of her glamorous good looks and allure. Nowadays Jovovich is not convincing as a woman so beautiful and desirous that a man like Mabry would risk all for her. I didn’t buy it from the moment Lucetta appeared onscreen or in her nude scenes. Now, before readers start howling about my being an insensitive male chauvinist pig, in my defense let me hasten to add that Jovovich’s character’s being what used to be called a sex bomb is the lynchpin to the plot of this movie. A sexually sophisticated reader may object and say that a partner’s lovemaking ability is more important than his/her looks, and while this may be true, Lucetta’s physical appearance and attributes are supposed to be essential in terms of her luring a man who can lose all to the spider’s web of her bed.

De Niro and Jovovich

De Niro and Jovovich

John Curran (2006’s The Painted Veil, another sexual triangle drama co-starring Norton that is based on a Somerset Maugham novel) does an able job directing his ensemble cast, which includes Frances Conroy (HBO’s Six Feet Under series) as Mabry’s wife Madylyn (the first three letters suggest the frustrated, wasted life her Bible thumping character has led, which is indicated in an opening flashback scene). Norton gives Stone’s best performance, rendering a genuinely enigmatic, bizarre character, a master web spinner and puppet master who has been convicted of a horrific crime (which, of course, Stone insists to his probation officer-cum-dupe that he did not commit). Norton’s mannerisms include speaking with a voice I’ve never heard him use onscreen before, and he is convincing as the convict who sacrifices his wife to further his own aspirations.

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One of the things I like about De Niro as an actor is that unlike, say Marlon Brando -- who held the acting profession in contempt and seemed after the mid-1970s to generally appear onscreen only when he needed dough or to make a statement, such as in 1989’s anti-apartheid film A Dry White Season – is that De Niro, one of our best, generally seems to like being in movies, and I still enjoy seeing his larger than life self. The problem is that the 67-year-old superstar may love it – and the fame, fortune, access, power, etc., stardom affords him – too much. He’s fine in Stone, but if you want to see a great De Niro performance, stay home and watch one of the early Martin Scorsese hits, like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II, playing the pre-Brando young Don Corleone. De Niro may suffer from overexposure, and many of his choices in recent years are questionable (such as why did he perform in Stone?), and almost certainly not worthy of his uber-thespian stature and ability.

To be candid, I also wonder how bankable De Niro is nowadays. Does attaching his name to a movie ensure its getting made and, beyond that, its profitability? How does his star power translate to the youthful demographics of today’s ticket buying audiences at the multiplexes? And how about with foreign rights, DVD, cable, et al, sales?

Beyond this, I wonder how much of an audience there is for movies like Stone? With the many crime dramas on network television, as well as on basic cable and HBO, Showtime, et al, the big screen really has to compete with the little screen, as well as with the many permutations of home entertainment. And, as indicated, they may take different shapes, but much of their current content revolves around what is Depression-ridden America’s few growth industries: crime. It may never pay, but it’s unlikely to be outsourced.

Although it suffers from a not too sexy or fatal femme fatale, Stone is a solid decent drama. But I wonder if auds will go out of their way to see and pay for it, given today’s multi-faceted entertainment distractions (many of them free or already paid for, right at home, on office computer screens or various mobile devices, including, Dick Tracy-like, on watches). I’ll be interested to see if there’s a market for movies like Stone, and if so, how much? Will viewers feel, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, that they’d rather not feel so all alone, and everybody must get Stone-d – or will they stay home? Methinks the answer to this question makes Stone a bellwether movie in terms of contemporary audience preferences, box office, etc.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”