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Stone: Film Review

10:12 PM PDT 10/14/2010 by Kirk Honeycutt

The Bottom Line

"Stone" reminds you not only how willing that short-lived indie distributor was to take risks but how easy it was for it -- or for anyone -- to miscalculate those risks in an indie market that is exceedingly dicey.

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TORONTO -- Premiering in Toronto less than two months after the demise of Overture Films, "Stone" reminds you not only how willing that short-lived indie distributor was to take risks but how easy it was for it -- or for anyone -- to miscalculate those risks in an indie market that is exceedingly dicey.

"Stone" stars Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, so one can anticipate critics and adult filmgoers will take notice. Plus the story deals with corruption, dark impulses and moral bankruptcy -- so, again, one imagines it will at least be thought-provoking.

Ennui-provoking is more like it.

There is not a credible moment in this overly calculated melodrama. And though Jon Brion's score -- a steady beat that feels less like music than an unnerving noise from a nearby room -- labors to produce tension among the characters, the actors deliver uneven performances. De Niro trudges through the dramatic muck in workmanlike fashion, and Norton's portrayal of a white-trash sociopath is all tricked out with nervous mannerisms, vocal distortions, a weird accent and startling hairdos.

While not likely to attract those looking for a conventional thriller, the film misses the art house mark, too. Anemic box office should greet "Stone" when the film opens Oct. 8 in Los Angeles and New York before a national rollout.

Maybe there needs to be a moratorium on stories about a protagonist about to embark on one last mission or one last crime or one last anything. For an audience just knows one monumental screw-up is heading his way.

De Niro plays Jack Mabry, a parole officer reviewing, yes, one last case before his retirement. This involves Norton's Gerald Creeson, a sniveling convict who wants to be called "Stone." If that name doesn't send up red flags, then his abundant self-pity and disturbing lack of remorse for his participation in his own grandparents' murders should.

Stone plays his trump card right away. That would be his sexually voracious wife Lucetta (played by Milla Jovovich as if she wandered on to the set from a porn shoot). The couple plays this card in as blatant a manner as possible; nonetheless, Jack falls for it, or can't resist Lucetta's charms, or misplaced his parole officers' manual at a crucial moment. Who the hell knows, but if you buy this plot turn, you probably also respond to those e-mail queries from dying widows who want to give you $5 million.

The movie actually begins with a flashback to Jack's early years as a married man to tip you off that he nearly committed a crime as heinous as Stone's. In another movie, this might have been an effective way to contrast two men on opposite sides of the law who are more alike than a superficial glance would indicate. But "Stone" is so signposted like this all the way through that the movie does all the work for a viewer: You hardly need to keep track of such things.

Now in present day, Jack is undergoing a spiritual crisis. You know this because -- more signposts -- he listens in the car to nonstop religious talk shows. But none of this sinks in. He and his long-suffering wife (Frances Conroy) are a faded, lackluster couple who clutch their Bibles and attend church with a hopelessness they no longer even question.

Everything you think might happen does, so it all comes down to what two unstable men will do when one springs the other from prison as a "favor" to the convict's wife. Here the movie becomes oddly vague with a dramatic climax whose origin is unclear and outcome uncertain. Not that a viewer is invested in any of this anyway.

Angus MacLachlan's screenplay, which John Curran directed, supposedly is set in suburban Detroit, but everything feels slightly Southern, including Norton's peculiar accent.