Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk [Review by CLGJr]
“Verisimilitude.” It’s a classic SAT word, a ten-center as my Pops might say. But I need an even more affected term. “Simulacrum”? Bingo. It captures perfectly the experience of watching of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” the latest and downright bewildering picture from Ang Lee. The story is, at least in this adaptation, satire without laceration, social commentary with the fangs whittled down to nubs. Or I could be completely missing a genius move on Lee’s part. It’s actually taken me a long half-month think to be sure. (Sorry, you guys!)
Based on Ben Fountain’s extremely popular novel of the same name, “Billy Lynn” follows the titular hero on his return to the United States after a grueling tour in Iraq. The setting is intentionally rooted in rural Texas, that most sacrosanct ‘Murican locale. Billy (Joe Alwyn) is a member of the Bravos, a company that showed the world you don’t mess with the Army either. He’s perfected the thousand-yard stare and was probably raised on a diet of corn and brisket. Billy gained widespread renown for engaging the enemy in mano a mano combat after attempting to rescue his fallen superior, Shroom (Vin Diesel), using only a handgun. He is G.I. Joe incarnate.
We meet him first attending Shroom’s solemn funeral. The band of brothers includes familiar hotheads, sensitive types, and dreamers. They are led by a tough-as-nails-but-actually-dope leader Dime, a committed Garrett Hedlund. After rifles are fired and tears shed, the men prepare for their VIP appearance at a Dallas football game. Is it the Cowboys? Absolutely not, thanks probably to stupid intellectual property law. Do they play in the league’s fanciest stadium? Check. Are their cheerleaders every adolescent boy’s dream of feminine perfection? Check. Is the team owner (Steve Martin, reading off a teleprompter?), a narcissistic septuagenarian with closely cropped white hair? Check. You tell me about simulacra.
Events play out more or less predictably. Triggers in the present send Billy into reveries of the past. The firefight in Iraq. Being disciplined by Shroom and Dime. Late-night conversations with his sister (Kristen Stewart), the inspiration for his joining the armed forces. The editing between timelines feels obvious and facile. But, hey, a hero needs his back story. Too many other tendrils emanate from the central homecoming story. Chris Tucker, less manic than usual, plays an agent trying to score the Bravos a movie deal. Billy makes googly eyes at a cheerleader, who really thanks him for his service. There are too many scenes in which the Bravos encounter empathetic civilians who just get an earful about how they don’t get it, man.
All of these coalesce in, yes, the halftime walk. One thing it’s not is long. It is, however, filled with pyrotechnics (trigger warning, y’all) and a faceless trio of women playing show-stopping act Destiny’s Child. I actually laughed during these central scenes, and I know guffaws were not intended. Elsewhere in the stadium, we’re treated to more miscalculated civilian contretemps. The screenwriter wants us to elevate our proboscises at these obese, discourteous boors. I just yawned at the obviousness of it all. True satire operates well below the surface; the telegraphy in this film robs the novel’s force of its critical sting.
The performances range from comedically bad (Diesel, Martin, Tucker) to decent (Hedlund, Stewart) to genuinely intriguing (Alwyn). How did Lee let this happen? On what planet does the auteur behind these veritable classics go so wrong in guiding his actors? Why did it feel like I was watching a satire of military valor pictures? Diesel’s character spews Buddhist nonsense as if part of an awards ceremony reel for a movie-within-a-movie. The cheerleader serves up a pat tearjerker monologue and is even referred to as the love interest central to the movie Tucker is pitching. Is Lee doubling down on the satire by needling his fellow filmmakers? Is the awfulness intentional? God, I hope so. Otherwise, one of our most consistently great directors has delivered a jaw-dropping stinker.
I’ve resisted saying anything until now about the real pachyderm in the room: the 120 frames per second, super-duper high-definition presentation. Pitchforks were publicly wielded over Peter Jackson’s experiment with the format; only the critics have bothered this time around. Let this one join the chorus. Get rid of the technology. Banish it from our multiplexes. It’s the cause of the unnecessary verisimilitude, the film as simulacrum. If I wanted to take in hyper-realistic visions, I’d sell a limb for Hamilton tickets. Or, less expensively, just sit in the Boston Common for two hours. Film needs a certain level of artifice to work, and Lee also drained this one of its cinematic DNA.
Maybe it’s time to put away the shiny toys, Hollywood. “Billy Lynn,” for all the bloodshed at its heart, has none running through its veins.
CLGJr Verdict: A rare, glaring misstep from Ang Lee. If you nonetheless care about advancements in movie tech–or want to see Vin Diesel invent the archetype of beefy monk-soldier–you could do worse.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk opened Friday November 18.
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