Nothing changes overnight. Which, I guess, explains why the sad decline of Robert De Niro’s acting has taken so long to witness. It’s been too many years to count since Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and despite a few honorable but quickly forgotten roles in flops, this once-revered actor has done nothing worth writing home about. He chased money and women and remained an icon to wannabes who still think it’s a big deal to get into the Actors Studio. Then, like Brando, he sort of gave up on truthfulness in acting somewhere along the way, leaving his fans with the impression that he’ll do anything if the timing is convenient and somebody meets his asking fee. Result: He’s buried himself under a cinematic dung heap from which his talent rarely surfaces. This is not going to change with a horror called Stone.
Stone is really a double-barreled disaster, because it also wastes the talents of the gifted, versatile and generally clueless Edward Norton. (Seems like yesterday that he was hooted off the screen in the despicable hillbilly pot-factory bomb Leaves of Grass.) Maybe it’s their agents who convince otherwise reliable artists they can get away with anything the market will bear. I’ve got news. No market can bear a ridiculous performance by Norton, jabbering like Stepin Fetchit with his hair tightly twisted in rows of dreadlocks, that is so bad it’s laughable.
The clean-cut Norton, covered with tattoos in his freakiest disguise since American History X, is a hard-case arsonist named Stone who torched his grandparents’ home. He shows no remorse, but after serving nine out of a 10- to 15-year prison sentence, he claims he’s in the middle of a spiritual rebirth that demands respect (and parole).
De Niro is Jack Mabry, the head case officer on the Michigan parole review board, who is counting the days before his retirement. Unimpressed with Stone’s trailer-trash filibusters and infuriated by his threats, Jack turns him down. So Stone hatches a plan to manipulate the system by dispatching his sluttish common-law wife, Lucetta (another drooling, hip-grinding travesty of bogus acting by Milla Jovovich), to seduce the old cop with the sexual prowess of a Bourbon Street lap dancer.
In the preposterous plot, cobbled together from half a dozen loopy stories by the late, unlamented cynic Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me), her undulating thighs do magic tricks, and the hard-boiled corrections officer is just the fool to fall for it. Mabry may be a monster in a bottle waiting to get out, but he’s not stupid. He knows a con man when he sees one, so falling for Stone’s sex bait never rings true.
In the end, the point (if there is one) is that to save a bad man’s life, a trashy Lilith/Lolita/Lorelei in hot pants destroys a good man in the process. But save your sympathy. Everybody is bad in Stone—in more ways than one. There is nothing in the dreadful screenplay by Angus MacLachlan that matches even one priceless word of Charles Schnee’s Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1952 classic The Bad and the Beautiful, but it did remind me of Elaine Stewart’s memorable line, “There ain’t no good men, buster—there’s only men.”
Stone is so illogical that it’s hard to know where to place the blame. The ridiculous, religion-obsessed sin-and-redemption script, replete with a fake faith called Zukangor? The lazy direction by John Curran, who did a much better job establishing mood, narrative and characterization in his last film, The Painted Veil, also starring Norton? The actors, who walk through it in a state of glazed somnambulism? There are so many things wrong with this mess that it’s pointless to pick just one, when there’s enough vile stuff to go around.
The Stone character is too reptilian for a smart cookie like Mabry to fall so easily into his obvious trap. And Mabry is so full of his own demons (an opening scene, irritatingly never referred to again, shows him torturing his cowering wife by dangling their baby outside an upstairs window and threatening to drop it on its head) that his dysfunctional marriage to a wasted Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), punctuated by creepy right-wing music blasted from Christian radio programs played in Jack’s car, only serves as a portentous warning of things to come. Mabry is a nut, but the actual reason he begins his adulterous affair is never examined. Did Stone force his wife to sleep with the parole officer, or did Jack do it to experience a religious epiphany? De Niro fails to make anything about his miserable character poignant, while Norton’s overwrought intensity borders on hysteria. The desired moral dilemma never arrives.
It is never clear what Stone is really about, or why anyone would want to make it in the first place. It’s an ambiguous look at the spiritual emptiness of middle-American religious conservatives that is dead on arrival. Wait for the DVD.