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Promised Land (2012)
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by Eric Lefenfeld

"Mr. Damon Goes To Flyover Country"
2 stars

"Promised Land" has all the makings of a memorable end-of-year prestige film, but the star-studded cast and topical subject matter can't cover up the fact that overwhelming schmaltz is the order of the day.

Throughout his career, Gus Van Sant has been a firm believer in the "one for me, one for you" school of directing, with feet comfortably planted on both sides of the Hollywood machine. He might churn out the formulaic feel-goodery of "Finding Forrester," but that's immediately followed up by "Gerry," possibly his most opaque film to date. What's always been nice, though, is that even in his more frothy work, the contemplative and often dark side that he fully embraces in his more personal films still tends to rear its head.

Not so with "Promised Land." This is Hollywood Hitmaker Van Sant through and through. All the way through. Even so, it's a little shocking that the film feels so rote given the large amount of talent both in front of and behind the camera. Co-written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, from a story by Dave Eggers, and with a seasoned pro at the helm, the final result feels surprisingly hollow.

Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a salesman for the not so ambiguously named Global Natural Gas. He and his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), are sent to a small, Midwestern town to convince the recession-addled residents to sell their land for drilling rights. All is going swimmingly until a science teacher (Hal Holbrook) starts making noise about the negative environmental effects that Butler is not including in his sales pitch. Also stirring up trouble is an affable activist, Peyton Noble (John Krasinski), arriving in town to preach his gospel and vie with Butler for the affections of local resident Alice (Rosemarie Dewitt). These dissenters, along with the warming influence of other citizens, cause Butler to start questioning his place in life, both personally and professionally.

This movie is entrenched right down the middle of the road, but don't be surprised if it racks up a few nominations when the Oscars roll around. That's right -- this is one of those sexy, sexy beasts known as a BIG ISSUE film, a syndrome most famously embodied in recent years by Paul Haggis' "Crash." Like that film, "Promised Land" is about as far from subtle as one can get. We get several long-winded speeches from various characters -- overly-written diatribes about the dangers of fracking or rosy tributes to small town life. To be clear, there's nothing wrong with addressing such concerns, but the film approaches these issues with the delicate touch of a wrecking ball; there's no such thing as quiet moment of reflection in this universe where all hearts are worn on sleeves loudly and proudly. Holbrook's character is so overflowing with nobility that he might as well have a halo resting above his head. These same broad strokes are used to paint the rest of the small town residents; everyone's just a little too cute and quirky.

Matt Damon is perfectly fine in the lead role, which is to be expected at this point in his career, and does his hardest to sell the transformation of Butler. It's just too bad the film has to telegraph every defining moment as loudly as possible. On the other hand, his repartee with Frances McDormand is far and away the highlight of the film, one of the few genuinely human touches in a story that is constantly being derailed by rosy artifice. It seems as if the filmmakers were going for a Frank Capra vibe, trying to recreate an old fashioned tale about one man being won over by the innate wholesomeness of the world, but it feels more like an imitation rather than ever actually capturing that distinct tone.

There's a more subdued fish out of water story tucked away underneath all the speechifying, more in the vein of something like "Local Hero." The film goes in the completely opposite direction, though, choosing to go bigger and broader whenever the opportunity arises. It's competent, even occasionally beautiful in its capturing of earthy Midwestern landscapes, but it feels somewhat empty at heart, itself a symptom of the corporate muckity-muck that it supposedly stands against.

There's nothing overtly horrible about "Promised Land." The frustration lies in just how easily this could've been a great film. Unfortunately, the sentimentality that's constantly strived for is never fully realized, and the film gets mired in an overly preachy swamp from which it can never pull itself free.

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originally posted: 12/26/12 14:37:23
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  28-Dec-2012 (R)
  DVD: 23-Apr-2013


  DVD: 23-Apr-2013

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