by Ben Kenigsberg
Diners, strip malls, housing developments. The landscape has an undeniable familiarity, even if there aren't any recognizable landmarks. Welcome to Long Island, the great boring sprawl.
, Eric Mendelsohn's heinously overrated paean to suburban monotony, Michael Cuesta's
wants to emphasize just how bleak life is in the non-Hamptons suburbs. But like
again, it overstates the case. As a lifelong Long Islander, I can attest that life in a land where nightclubs close at 11 p.m. is indeed dull, but not everyone hates living there. And there are plenty of people there who aren't, well, disturbed.
The title of Cuesta's movie refers to the Long Island Expressway, the truck-filled highway that, the movie reminds us, is responsible for claiming the lives of Harry Chapin and Alan Pakula. "You got the lanes going east, you got the lanes going west," says Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano), the protagonist. "You also got the lanes going straight to hell."
Judging from the movie, one can forget about the lanes going east and west. Howie is fifteen. His mother is dead, thanks to Exit 52. His dad Marty (Bruce Altman) spends most of his at-home time shacked up with a bimbo. Marty, a construction semi-mogul, is under federal scrutiny because of faulty wiring in one of his developments. Howie's best friend, Gary (Billy Kay), robs houses for kicks and, the movie suggests but doesn't confirm, recruits children for a local pedophile. Said pedophile, Big John (Brian Cox), has a thing for boys like Howie. Another of Howie's friends is involved in an incestuous relationship. Howie discovers he's gay, a preference for which, he knows, his friends will ostracize him.
And you thought your life was depressing.
Cuesta's movie makes the mistake of equating misery with realism. On the surface, Cuesta's willingness to deal honestly with molestation, teenage sexuality and ill-attended father-son relationships smacks of integrity. But Cuesta's insistence on holding back all rays of sunshine is ludicrous. I don't care who you are; all lives have ups and downs. But just when things are looking up for Howie -- like when he stops robbing houses with Gary and goes back to school -- Cuesta ignores the improvement and returns to the pedophilia strand of the plot, or introduces a new problem, like child abuse.
The chances of Howie's life reverting to normalcy become slimmer by the minute, and Cuesta, a first-time filmmaker, often strains laughably to maintain the somber mood. For example, we're expected to assume Marty's guilt, even though he claims innocence. The only person who might actually believe him is his lawyer (Adam LeFevre), but in the interest of denying Marty a potential salvation, the movie has the lawyer
in his only scene.
Marty insists innocence to Howie, but Howie shrugs it off and says, "Your whole life is a lie." The use of such a hoary dialogue clich at once makes the title a neat little pun, and kills whatever chance Howie and Marty might have of having a realistic conversation. The wiring scandal is the perfect vehicle for local detail -- Marty's story seems drawn from Newsday headlines -- but the film knows far more about Long Island than the human beings who inhabit it.
Still, it's tough not to give
bonus points for not totally copping out. There's a chilling moment when, in the middle of seducing Howie, Big John receives a call from his mother. John is, by far, the most interesting character in the film -- half Norman Bates and half Mr. Feeny from
Boy Meets World
. We're allowed to sense his pain through what goes unsaid. We first glimpse him celebrating his birthday with his mother and an ambiguous makeshift family; it all seems relatively normal, but who are these people, and what do they mean to John? Cox, a gifted Scottish actor best known for playing an oddly spelled rendition of Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann's
, makes John charming enough to fascinate Howie, but frightening enough to make Mason Verger run for the covers. He's the most complex movie pervert since Dylan Baker's character in
But what John has -- humanity, namely -- is what the rest of the movie lacks. Ultimately, the film never gives you enough of a handle on Howie to decide whether he's a tragic figure or just a kid who doesn't know how to get his act together. It seems true to life when the movie closes without resolving anything, but it's also unrewarding: driving on the L.I.E. may be harrowing, but at least you get somewhere.