absentee father, American Beauty, Ann Magnuson, Arizona, Catcher in the Rye, Chris Klein, cinema, coming of age, depression, developmentally disabled, divorced parents, Don Cheadle, drama, drug abuse, drug dealer, dysfunctional family, fate, films, flashbacks, Holden Caulfield, independent films, indie dramas, infidelity, James Glennon, Jena Malone, Jeremy Enigk, juvenile detention facility, Kerry Washington, Kevin Spacey, Leland Fitzgerald, Lena Olin, Martin Donovan, Matthew Ryan Hoge, mentally challenged, Michael Pena, Michael Welch, Michelle Williams, Movies, murder, Nick Kokich, prison films, revenge, romance, Ryan Gosling, shattered families, Sherilyn Fenn, Sunny Day Real Estate, The Notebook, The United States of Leland, troubled teens, vengeance, voice-over narration, Wesley Jonathan, writer-director, youth in trouble
Grainy, home movie footage of a yard gives ways to a slow pan across the bright, vibrant green grass, as Ryan Gosling’s familiar, rather bored voice talks about “not being able to remember that day.” The pan continues, as deliberate as a lazy summer day, before finally ending on the obviously dead body of a young man. Gosling stands there, looking pensive for a moment, before jogging off as the Pixies’ iconic “Gigantic” bursts from the soundtrack. It’s a dynamic, effective opening and as a good a way as any to pull us into The United States of Leland (2003), a coming-of-age downer that often plays like a lesser American Beauty, despite having a few extra tricks up its sleeve.
After the opening, we get the meat of the situation: Leland Fitzgerald (Gosling) has just admitted to his mother, Marybeth (Lena Olin) that he killed Ryan Pollard (Michael Welch), the developmentally disabled brother of his girlfriend, Becky (Jena Malone). The whole thing comes as even more of a shock since Leland is so easy-going and seemed to genuinely care about Ryan. His admission is emotionless, distant and he’s locked up post-haste. While inside the juvenile detention facility, Leland meets the usual, stock “guy in prison” characters: a kindly Hispanic inmate (Michael Pena) who tries to strike up a friendship with Leland and a young, black inmate (Wesley Johnathan) who is initially hesitant of the “devil worshiper who killed the retard,” but gradually warms to him. More importantly, however, Leland meets Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), an aspiring author who teaches classes at the facility.
Pearl sees something in Leland and convinces him to keep a journal, which the boy dubs “The United States of Leland.” Seeing the perfect subject for his long-gestating novel, Pearl tries to get to the essence of Leland, hoping to figure out what drove such a seemingly nice guy to do such a terrible thing. Meanwhile, on the outside, the dead boy’s family is falling apart: father Harry (Martin Donovan) is obsessed with the idea of killing Leland, mother Karen (Bongwater-member Ann Magnuson) has completely shut down, sisters Becky and Julie (Michelle Williams) are a wreck and Julie’s boyfriend, Allen (Chris Klein) is doing his best to hold everything together. He can’t, of course, because the situation continues to spin out of control, even as Leland seems to get some semblance of peace behind bars. As the reasons for Leland’s actions become more clear, including life-long issues with his absentee, famous writer father, Albert (Kevin Spacey), and Becky’s backsliding into heroin addiction, via her slimy ex-boyfriend, Kevin (Nick Kokich), everything seems to move along the most fatalistic path possible. When Allen decides to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to heal the wounded family, his actions bring everything to a boil, changing all of their lives, forever, in the process.
Released the year before Gosling would find super-stardom with the romantic hit The Notebook (2004), The United States of Leland is an odd role for the burgeoning superstar. While an argument can be made that many of Gosling’s performances hinge on his handsome, slightly bemused face taking stock of the situation (any situation…every situation…), it seems a rather unfair criticism to say that he spends the entire film staring off into the distance. Yet, essentially, this is what he does for the better part of the film’s almost two-hour-run-time. There’s not a whole lot of acting going on here, to be honest, more like a studied attempt to under-act whenever possible. While this affectation may have worked wonders in films like Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), where Gosling served more as an enigmatic symbol than an actual person, it only serves to strip any chance of relating to his character: in most cases, Leland seems about as alive and “with-it” as someone in a semi-catatonic state.
With Gosling effectively out of the picture, then, the “heavy emotional lifting,” as it were, needs to come from American Pie’s Klein as Allen, one of the most obvious “white knight” characters in recent memory. Allen is such a ridiculously nice guy that he never seems to do anything for self-serving reasons: coupled with his kindly demeanor, soft-spoken strength and determination, Allen is just about the nicest nice guy you’d ever meet. Yet, time after time, the movie takes care to shit on Allen from a great height, beginning with the rather callous way that his girlfriend, Julie, kicks him to the curb when things get bad and culminating with his spectacularly terrible plan to “make everything better.” The film never makes any attempt to explain away Julie’s change of heart, which is actually pretty par for the course in a film where characters seem to make arbitrary decisions that are designed to propel the narrative forward.
Pearl cheats on his girlfriend with a co-worker, seemingly for the sole reason of giving Leland some moral high-ground on him. Leland’s father, Albert, is nothing but contradictions: the character seems so mercurial that it almost feels as if Spacey is playing two separate people, super-glued together. Becky, despite being a junkie (those folks aren’t normally known for being reliable), is a complete mess: none of her actions seem to go together and her motivations range from unknown to insane. While Malone is a more than capable actress, I felt a massive disconnect with her character: she seemed so arbitrary and calculatedly cruel that she was completely unrealistic: uber-nice guy or not, I find it hard to believe that Leland would put up with too much of her shit.
The film makes a few rather sharp points about the human tendency to mess up, something which Pearl repeatedly blames on human nature. In one of the most thought-provoking lines in the film, Leland smiles and tells Pearl that he thinks it’s amusing that people always blame bad stuff on human nature but not good stuff: that’s all us. It’s a smart observation and one of the few times in the film were we seem to get a (mostly) conscious Gosling. By contrast, the film’s coda, which purports to explain Leland’s mindset, is a complete muddle. There’s an allusion made to a family that he met years before, the Calderons, and we’re made to believe that sleeping with the mother opened Leland’s eyes to the sadness of the world. While it’s an intriguing thought, it’s also an underdeveloped one, coming as it does in the final few moments of the film. It’s not a revelation, per se (hence I don’t feel the need to warn about potential spoilers), mostly because it’s difficult to see how it actually influences the course of the narrative: it’s equivalent to finding out that someone wore a blue shirt on the day they killed someone. Since the color of the shirt, specifically, doesn’t have anything to with the killing, knowing this bit of information doesn’t provide us any further insight. It’s a sort of MacGuffin, if you will, but for character development.
One of my biggest issues with the film has to do with its structure. For most of the movie, The United States of Leland utilizes almost continual flashbacks: often, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what time-frame we’re currently in, especially with some of Becky’s drug activity. This seems particularly unnecessary since the actual plot of the movie is pretty straight-forward: the flashback structure just seemed like a way to “gussy up” the proceedings, some way to make the film stand out a little more. Ultimately, the flashbacks feel as unnecessary as Gosling’s constant voice-over, which does little to add to either his own motivations or the actual story at hand. Whenever I complain about voice-overs (which I constantly do) I’m complaining about superfluous ones like this. For the most part.
Most of the cast does just fine with their roles, although Spacey’s screen-time really amounts to more of a glorified cameo than anything else, which is kind of disappointing. During those few scenes, however, Spacey is a nearly perfectly pitched alpha-male asshole, a pretentious word-cruncher who can’t stop his compulsion to correct someone’s grammar even as they’re offering him help. Cheadle is reliably solid as Pearl but I can’t help feeling that much of his actions and characterizations were just as arbitrary as those of Becky and Julie. At least Albert’s actions all fit with his obnoxious personality but Pearl was always something of an enigma.
One notable aspect of The United States of Leland would definitely be the soundtrack and score. Beginning with the Pixies song in the opening, music plays a pretty big part in the overall design of the film. This isn’t surprising when you consider that Jeremy Enigk, the frontman for ’90s-era emo-band Sunny Day Real Estate, handles the score duties here. Considering that veteran cinematographer James Glennon – whose resume includes Flight of the Navigator (1986), Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999) and About Schmidt (2002) – was behind the camera, The United States of Leland has a consistently good look, especially with some nicely saturated colors. While the film isn’t particularly original, it’s never a chore to watch.
Ultimately, The United States of Leland is a decent effort but one that breaks no new ground whatsoever. Despite a decent ensemble cast, there just isn’t much here to write home about. If you’ve always wondered what a less-focused, more vague take on American Beauty would feel like, The United States of Leland might just fit the bill. Otherwise, it’s a pretty basic drama about dysfunctional families, our dysfunctional society and the million little ways we find to make ourselves truly miserable.