Guillermo Arriaga made his name as a screenwriter with stories of people in pain. Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel — Arriaga's typical landscape is littered with hurt, disillusioned, burnt-out characters groping for meaning. Nothing demonstrably wrong with that. Quite a few other filmmakers work that same piece of ground. In fact, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which Arriaga wrote for director-leading man Tommy Lee Jones, achieves a rough poetry of loneliness and regret in its desert story of a promise kept, thanks largely to Jones and costar Barry Pepper.
But enough is enough, and the Mexican native's first directorial effort, The Burning Plain, returns to the well once too often in its predictably fractured tale of three sets of guilty love seekers. A Seattle restaurant manager named Sylvia (Charlize Theron) has problems with promiscuity and bad memories of her mother. A pair of adulterous lovers, Gina (Kim Basinger) and Nick (Portuguese international actor Joaquim de Almeida), sneak off for quickies in a trailer in the desert. And a young girl named Maria (Tessa Ia) yearns for her long-lost mother, hoping that her crop-dusting pilot father, Santiago (Danny Pino), will reunite with the mother and restore the family unit.
Filmmakers with space to fill and time to kill seem to crave these splintered narratives. Why? Maybe it's easier than merely making up a few characters and following them straight through to the end of a story. Perhaps it's meant to mimic complexity, or to demonstrate the unmanageability of life. Just create a mismatched group of desperate characters, get them up their various trees, crosscut nervously back and forth between them, and the audience can have fun guessing what they all have in common — besides the unbearable weight of existence, that is.
Before Arriaga came along, the worst offenders for this aggravating style of storytelling were Lawrence Kasdan (Grand Canyon), Paul Haggis (Crash), and Paul Thomas Anderson, whose 1999 Magnolia made disastrous use of a rain of frogs to inform us that everyone in the Los Angeles basin leads a sad, meaningless life.
But beginning with his screenplay for Amores Perros, Arriaga moved in and took over the territory. He's now the official Splinter King. Others may try, but no one can top him for constructing grandiose watchtowers of pretentious pathos, crisscrossed by a melancholy emotional circuitry that nevertheless reassures us that, yes, we are all interconnected, if only in our despair.
What do Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, a pair of rich American tourists in Morocco, have in common with Gael García Bernal, a drunken guest at a Northern Mexican wedding? More than you might think, buster. Trouble is, just as in global telecommunications, there's always a weak link. Survivors of Babel are still scratching their heads over that movie's Japanese-schoolgirl subplot.
But back to The Burning Plain, whose plot — spoiler alert! — I am about to compromise. At some point, it dawns on us that the wily Arriaga is not only skipping from place to place, but also time traveling, and that a few of these woeful souls are actually earlier and/or later versions of themselves. We won't disclose exactly which characters these are, but you'll find out. Bring a hanky. Meanwhile, hats off to Basinger for her portrayal of cheating wife Gina — find us another 55-year-old woman with legs like that and we'll send you on an all-expenses-paid weekend at a red-hot desert love nest.
As the restless Sylvia/Mariana, Theron mostly reiterates her troubled-character roles from Monster, Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, and Sleepwalking. In fact, Theron may well be the Splinter Queen. Arriaga rushes us through Sylvia's situation like a fire drill. All we can see is that with her compulsive, seemingly random bed-hopping Sylvia is heading for a crack-up.
The point here is that if Arriaga could somehow slow down, take a deep breath, and focus on one or two characters at a time — in other words, give actors like Theron and Basinger a little more room in which to work — he'd potentially have more than a hasty tour of the world's emotional low-pressure zones.
Of course, as in practically all of Arriaga's films, the US Sunbelt/Mexican desert scenery is superb — his characters are always miserable in picturesque spots. The title needs work, though. It practically gives away an important surprise plot point.
Trouble is a relative thing. Guillermo Arriaga and his characters might be spread a little too thinly over the desert, but The Burning Plain looks like Children of Paradise alongside I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.
The title should prepare us for the worst, but in fact no warning adequately braces us for our dip into the sphere of one Tucker Max (Matt Czuchry), a Virginia collegiate party guy whose main occupation, aside from binge drinking and leading his friends astray, is to have sex with as many disabled women as he can — he keeps a mental tally. The film is a series of variations on that, uh, theme, and you can rest assured that director Bob Gosse, working from a screenplay by real-life blogger and author Max (IHopeTheyServeBeerinHell.com), sets out to top every young-adult-male screen gross-out that went before — from casual barroom insults to flaming Dr. Pepper shooters (remember, it's set in the South) to little-people shagging to dripping diarrhea close-ups.
A case could be made for the film as a radical assault on tastefulness. It will probably sell tickets in college towns, and the home video market could be robust. But in the end we have to acknowledge that I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is a worthless piece of crap. A turd with pretensions is still a turd. One of its biggest failings is that, in spite of all the irreverence and gleeful puke that went before, the last reel finds Max making a maudlin speech at his best friend's wedding, seeking redemption after confessing that "someone else always cleans up my messes." What a pussy. Do you think Antonin Artaud begged forgiveness? Do you see Too $hort or Mick Jagger mewling and groveling for approbation? Next month someone will put out a brand-new gross-out Guy Flick that erases I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell's last shred of relevance. But you and I won't see it. And Tucker Max will finally become a corporate attorney for the small-arms manufacturing industry.
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