OPENS FRIDAY 1st JULY
Three out of Five stars
Running time: 108 mins
Never less than watchable, but despite an attractive cast and a handful of strong performances, this is ultimately let down by its frustrating resolution.
The United States of Leland is the debut feature by writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge and also one of the first films to be produced by Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street production company, which explains Spacey’s extended cameo appearance.
It has an excellent cast but is saddled with an overly thoughtful script that’s unfortunately not as deep as it thinks it is. The result is a watchable but ultimately frustrating and disappointing film.
Ryan Gosling (The Notebook) plays seemingly ordinary 15 year old Leland P. Fitzgerald, who shocks his community when he confesses to stabbing his ex-girlfriend’s disabled brother. Leland’s is sent to juvenile hall, where he meets Pearl (Don Cheadle), a teacher and aspiring author, who senses a novel in Leland’s story and engineers secret meetings in order to get Leland to open up to him.
As Leland tells his story we get several flashbacks, in which we get to know the other people in his life, including: his emotionally distant mother (Lena Olin); his famous author father Albert T. Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey); his drug-addicted ex-girlfriend Becky (Jena Malone); Becky’s sister Julie (Michelle Williams) and her live-in boyfriend Allen (Chris Klein). Meanwhile, Leland’s unusually passive, inquisitive nature forces Pearl to consider his own morally questionable behaviour.
Hoge apparently spent two years as a teacher in the Los Angeles juvenile court system before writing his screenplay, which probably accounts for the amount of time the script spends on Pearl and his various sub-plots.
In fact there are no less than three writers or would-be writers in the film (Leland himself also keeps a journal, which gives the film its title), and as a result there is too much about writers writing and not enough about Leland himself.
This is the film’s main problem – Hoge seems to take delight in the fact that the film’s conclusion is so frustratingly vague, whereas in fact it’s both annoying and disappointing.
There are two stand-outs in the cast: Cheadle delivers the latest in a long line of top quality performances as Pearl and Spacey makes the most of his embittered cameo. The film’s best scene involves Pearl meeting Albert (an idol of his) and Albert immediately seeing right through Pearl’s motives. (“I’m Chapter Two.”) Gosling does the best he can with his part, but it’s a measure of the film’s flaws that you never know whether or not he’s meant to be a little bit autistic or something.
Of the supporting cast, Jena Malone is particularly good, playing yet another ‘girlfriend of the weird kid’ role, after Donnie Darko. There’s also strong support from Martin Donovan (as Becky’s father), but the wonderful Lena Olin is horribly wasted as Leland’s mother and barely has any lines.
To sum up, The United States of Leland is an attractively cast, watchable drama that’s ultimately let down by its disappointing conclusion. It does have a great soundtrack though – any movie that includes at least three Pixies tracks can’t be all bad.