`Leland' stunted by lack of emotional growth

Movie Review

May 01, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Leland Fitzgerald is a mixed-up, disturbed kid. That, The United States of Leland makes very clear. Problem is, although the movie thinks it offers insights into what makes him that way, it really doesn't. What it does is offer a standard victimization excuse (broken home, distant dad) combined with heaps of teen angst.

Of course, that's the essence of what J.D. Salinger did with Catcher in the Rye, but to compare that classic to this surface treatment is like comparing the Mona Lisa to those cheap knockoffs you can buy on sidewalks outside the Louvre. The form is there, but not the genius or the passion.

Leland (Ryan Gosling) begins the film by having just killed someone; we soon find out it's the mentally challenged brother of his ex-girlfriend, Becky Pollard (Jena Malone). Locked away in juvenile hall, he soon comes under the tutelage of Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), a burned-out teacher and frustrated writer who sees this kid as his ticket to the big time; if he can get inside his head, find out what made him do what he did, there's the best seller he's been waiting to write his whole life.

Against prison regulations, he begins one-on-one counseling sessions with Leland, asking him gently probing questions and getting answers that are mostly counter-questions (this kid is great at the Socratic method). Occasionally, he's regaled with stories that provide snippets of Leland's back story.

We watch Becky try to deal with her grief, stuff that happened before and after her brother's death. In fact, the whole movie is about how people deal with their sad stations in life. The stoic unfortunates include Leland's parents (Kevin Spacey, as a surly, world-famous author and Lena Olin as his ex-wife), Becky's parents, (Martin Donovan and Ann Magnuson), Becky's sister Julie (Michelle Williams), and the Pollards' teen-age border, Allen (Chris Klein).

The United States of Leland unfolds in nonlinear fashion; events jump back and forth in time for no discernible reason. There's plenty of tragedy to be spread among these people, and lots of hand-wringing.

Yet, for all the film's obvious sincerity, it resolutely resists going anywhere. Pearl starts off as an opportunist, and while there's a suggestion that he's converted somewhere along the way and develops a genuine interest in helping Leland, he really doesn't.

Likewise, the other characters remain too encased in their worlds to allow for much in the way of emotional growth; writer-director Matthew Hoge never really lets any character make anything in the way of a breakthrough. That may reflect the reality of what often happens in cases such as the one depicted here, but it doesn't make for compelling, or honestly insightful, drama.

The United States of Leland

Starring Ryan Gosling, Jena Malone, Kevin Spacey

Written and directed by Ryan Hoge

Released by Paramount Classics

Rated R (language, thematic material)

Time 143 minutes

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