Film: If Love Were All

In case you’re wondering, I don’t make a habit of watching TV on Oscar night—sanctimonious self-congratulation is not my idea of a fun evening—but it occurred to me that this year’s telecast might be more amusing than usual, seeing as how last year’s movies were so much more awful than usual. How would the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences contrive to put a happy face on Hollywood’s worst season in recent memory, if not ever?

I tuned in late, just in time to hear Whoopi Goldberg tell a John Ashcroft joke. After that, it was downhill all the way. The Best Screenplay awards went to A Beautiful Mind, a movie that is false from snout to tail, and Gosford Park, a watered-down version of The Rules of the Game. The Best Song award went to Randy Newman for a ditty from Monsters, Inc. that was plagiarized from a once-famous song by Hoagy Carmichael. The Best Actor and Best Actress awards went to Denzel Washington, who starred in a movie so bad that nobody watched it, and Halle Berry, who had already made it clear that failure to present her with the first Best Actress Oscar ever to go to a black woman would be proof positive of systemic racism in Hollywood, or maybe America—I forget which. Did I mention that Black Hawk Down didn’t win any major awards and that Ghost World didn’t win anything at all?

A Beautiful Mind capped the evening by winning Best Director and Best Picture. No surprises there. As a friend of mine observed, it was “engineered to win Oscars.” But it was Berry who got most of the ink in the next day’s papers, and I breathed a sigh of relief, having made a point of seeing her in Monster’s Ball a few weeks earlier. Thanks to my prescience, I can assure you that despite her more than usually aggressive playing of the guilt card, Berry deserved her nomination, if not necessarily her statuette. To be sure, hers was very likely the first Oscar-winning performance in a non-pornographic American movie in which the costar is shown having two nonconsecutive orgasms. But when not simulating ecstasy, she did a perfectly respectable job.

Moreover, Monster’s Ball, for all its phoniness, is a movie of some interest, partly because it is rather entertaining in its painfully earnest way and partly because of the particular kind of phoniness to which it aspires. Unlike A Beautiful Mind, which is a piece of cinematic costume jewelry, Monster’s Ball is phony only in selected ways. If you’ve ever lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line, you’ll know which parts are possible and which preposterous, thus allowing you to enjoy the former and laugh at the latter.

Foremost among the latter, alas, is the plot. Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is a Georgia prison guard. He works on death row, together with his younger brother, Sonny (Heath Ledger). Both men live with Buck (Peter Boyle), their father, an ex-death row guard who is now wheelchair-bound. Buck is a full-blown racist, Hank is a tightly wound bundle of nerves who spouts racist talk but isn’t quite as odious as his father, and Sonny is a sensitive young man at the end of his tether. When Hank and Sonny are called on to help execute Lawrence (Sean “Puffy” Combs), a convicted murderer who is also a gifted artist, they both crack under the strain. Sonny snaps first, fumbling his role in the execution protocol, after which Hank beats him up, after which Sonny shoots himself through the heart in front of his father and grandfather.

Hank comes unglued, quits his job, buys a gas station, and just happens to meet and fall in love with Leticia (Halle Berry). Hank doesn’t realize at first that Leticia is Lawrence’s widow, and Leticia doesn’t find out until much later that her new boyfriend strapped her late husband into the electric chair. Rendered blissful by their mutual ignorance, they have sex so mind-bogglingly good that Hank is purged of his racism, whereupon he slaps his horrible father into a nursing home, moves Leticia into the house, and names his gas station after her. Even after she learns the truth, they live happily ever after.

Though I have deliberately made the preceding events sound absurd in the telling, you now know exactly what happens in Monster’s Ball—except for an additional plot twist that I have suppressed solely in order to keep this review down to a manageable length. What we have here is, in short, a fantasy, and a more than usually dumb one at that. I don’t know anything about Milo Addica and Will Rokos, who wrote the screenplay, but my guess is that either they haven’t a clue as to what southern life is like, or they do know but prefer to tell it like it isn’t so as to spare the tender sensibilities of less well-informed viewers.

It’s probably the latter, since Addica, Rokos, and Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, have contrived to slap an impressively thick coat of verisimilitude on top of a set of comprehensively absurd premises. For while the plot of Monster’s Ball is as silly as can be, the surface is richly and acutely observed. Somebody involved with this movie knew all about small-town southern life—gravel roads, backwoods houses, all-night diners—and managed to get it on film and make it look right.

No less impressive is Billy Bob Thornton, who grew up with people like Hank and is capable of portraying them without a trace of caricature. I’m not sure how skilled an actor Thornton is, since I’ve never seen him play anything other than people more or less like Hank. But within those narrow limits, he is incredibly good. (Not so Peter Boyle, a fine actor who is given nothing to work with and thus finds himself forced to resort to the stalest of lip-smacking redneck clichés.) You can’t take your eyes off Thornton, not even to gaze on the luscious form of Halle Berry, who is way too pretty to be even slightly plausible in the role of a small-town waitress. Were this an honest movie, the part would have been given to someone who doesn’t look like a supermodel.

Still, Berry gets the most out of the pat ambiguities written into her part, and she and Thornton manage to make their relationship look like something that might actually have happened, albeit in Never-Never Land rather than Georgia. And therein lies the trouble with Monster’s Ball. A movie, after all, does not have to be real to seem real. This is how good genre films work: They take unreal situations and fill them with convincing emotional content. You probably don’t know any detectives or cowboys, but you know people like Robert Mitchum and Randolph Scott, and so you accept the conventional premises of films like Out of the Past and Ride Lonesome in much the same way that you accept the self-evident absurdities of, say, Cymbeline or Il Trovatore. But when a movie is situated in a precisely observed modern-day setting, you naturally expect believable things to happen there, and when they don’t, you roll your eyes and get giggly, which is what happened to me roughly midway through Monster’s Ball.

Stripped of all its arty pretensions, what we have here is yet another sticky film fable about how love conquers all, even in the deep South. Gone with the Wind was more honest than that.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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