Love 'em or hate 'em, there's no denying that the films of Oliver Stone comprise a formidable cinematic autobiography of the director told through the prism of his -- and his generation's -- obsessions, from Vietnam to the media.
"U-Turn," his latest film, starring Sean Penn, doesn't readily fit onto that continuum unless it represents the decision of one of this country's most serious, personal filmmakers to kick back, lighten up and have a little fun. Of course, this is Oliver Stone, so lightening up and having fun means a long weekend on the dark side, a brief visit to the place in our collective psyche where lust, violence and amorality meet and mingle.
In "U-Turn," Stone plays each of these cards over and over again, always with stylistic brio and always with an undercurrent of antic irony. But he plays them in a game we've seen before and, clocking in at an overlong two hours, it's a game that filmgoers are apt to lose interest in once the film's better performances and hyper-kinetic mood begin to pall.
Penn plays Bobby Cooper, a hood on the lam in a 1964-and-a-half Mustang that blows a radiator hose outside an Arizona desert town called Superior. After handing over the car to a myopic, mossy-toothed mechanic called Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), Bobby walks into town for something cold to drink. He brings a bag of ill-gotten money with him and decides to leave his gun in the trunk.
Quick, what was Bobby's first mistake? Was it to take the money with him and risk its coming to grief in the middle of a grocery store robbery? Was it to leave his gun behind, where Darrell might possibly find it and sell it (or worse)? No, Bobby made his first mistake when he came to a fork in the road, veered right and headed toward Superior, a town so redolent of venality that the church has closed in self-defense.
It doesn't take long for Bobby to meet Superior's more notable citizens, among them a lurking sheriff (Powers Boothe), a sleazy real estate tycoon (Nick Nolte, looking like a cross between John Huston and a jackalope) and Grace (Jennifer Lopez), the parodic epitome of the femme fatale whose powers of seduction make a man want to give it all up and take her to Milwaukee.
Ripping a page out of David Lynch's daybook, these aren't even Bobby's most bizarre encounters: Bobby has a dingbat Lolita (Claire Danes), her pugilistic suitor (Joaquin Phoenix) and a blind, homily-spouting shaman to contend with as well (this actor is so unrecognizable it would spoil the fun to name him here).
"U-Turn," which was based on the novel "Stray Dogs" by John Ridley and adapted for the screen by the author, takes its plotting from the familiar film noir template: A naive, if not wholly innocent, drifter stumbles into a town full of secrets and promptly becomes embroiled in a troubled marriage and a nasty double-cross scheme (think "Out of the Past" and, in its more recent incarnation, John Dahl's "Red Rock West").
In "U-turn," the double-cross swiftly metastasizes into a triple-cross and then some, all of them with Grace at the toxically sweet center, drawing Bobby in with irresistible force. One of the movie's many jokes is that Grace and the other sick puppies of Superior make big-town Bobby look like a piker.
Admirers of Stone's recent work will recognize the director's nervy visual stamp on "U-Turn," whose super-saturated colors, variegated film stocks and jumpy razor-edits plunge the audience into Bobby's addled world of febrile meta-reality. And the director has a great deal of fun with sound, in the form of amusing effects snuck into the background or Sean Penn's suddenly delivering his lines in a Donald Duck voice. In keeping with the sportive tone of "U-Turn," Ennio Morricone hasn't so much composed a score as confected one, grabbing a pinch from his own 1970s canon here, a spoonful from Hanna-Barbera there, with a soupcon from Prince to top it off.
It's all supposed to be enormous fun, and it should be for anyone whose idea of frivolity runs to the lewd, rude and Gothically crude. Scenes of Bobby coping with Grace's hot-and-cold sexuality, a protracted sequence involving a hatchet and the film's bloody, boiling denouement aren't for the squeamish and aren't meant to make any higher point, as was the violence in Stone's "Natural Born Killers." In fact, with "U-Turn," Stone seems to have set out to make a film specifically tailored to the de-sensitized sensibilities that he so decried in that earlier film.
Amid the vulgarity and carnage, "U-Turn" admittedly succeeds in delivering its share of laughs. Thornton's self-referential, post-"Slingblade" take as the hick mechanic makes for a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser (and who can resist the sight of him playing Twister dressed in nothing but a parka?). And it's a kicky twist to root for Penn, a funny, sympathetic straight man here, as the only sane candy-cane on the tree.
The rest of the cast simply cashes in on their license to ham it up as much as they please, no doubt an amusing departure for them, if not always for the audience. (Casting Lopez as an inexplicably Latin-accented "Apache wife" is mystifying if not downright insulting.)
One of the pleasures of following Stone's career has been watching his growth as a filmmaker, especially as it has coincided with a very fruitful collaboration with cinematographer Robert Richardson. "U-Turn" continues that growth in its own audacious way, even if the story doesn't always merit the heavy style the filmmakers throw at it.
It's no wonder that Stone, who has been regularly excoriated for his revisionist histories and socio-cultural meditations, would want to take a break by making something of no weightier consequence than its body count. If the black hilarity of "U-Turn" eventually begins to feel forced, its manic frivolity the victim of a heavier self-consciousness, it still limns another fascinating whorl Stone's cinematic thumbprint.
About the author
Ann Hornaday, currently working at the Austin-American Statesman in Texas, will be The Sun's new film critic beginning Nov. 1.
Starring Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Jennifer Lopez
Directed by Oliver Stone
Released by TriStar Pictures
Rated R (strong violence, sexuality and language)
Sun score ** 1/2
Pub Date: 10/03/97