Thursday, April 9, 2015

Arlington Road

2.5/4

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Hope Davis, Joan Cusack, Robert Gossett, Spencer Treat Clark, Mason Gamble

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

Your Paranoia is Real
I love a good tagline.  They're the most underrated forms of marketing, and some of them are quite clever.  While not as ominous as "Let he who is without sin try to survive" ("Seven") or "Think you're alone?  Think again" ("Hollow Man"), taken into context it's a pretty good one.

The premise of "Arlington Road," that your new neighbor across the street is a terrorist, is compelling and provocative, especially in this day and age.  "Arlington Road" was released in 1999: two years before 9/11, but three years after Oklahoma City.  The film uses our memories of the latter to enhance the atmosphere, but director Mark Pellington doesn't exploit it; they're mainly in quick montages and flipping pages.

Unfortunately, as has been proved many times in the past, a good premise doesn't necessarily lead to a good movie.  That's the case here.  There are definitely some things to like here, particularly in the first 45 minutes.  But with a script that's in need of some rewrites and a director who isn't particularly good a sleight-of-hand, "Arlington Road" becomes a movie that I have serious reservations about recommending.

Michael Farraday (Bridges) is a college professor at George Washington University who teaches a course on domestic terrorism.  It makes sense since his late wife worked with the FBI's ATF task force, but less so after she was gunned down on a sting gone bad.  Despite the fact that he has a loving girlfriend (Davis) and son (Clark), his wife's death has left him on the paranoid side.  He also has some new neighbors, Oliver (Robbins) and Cheryl (Cusack) Lang, whom he meets when he discovers their son Grady (Gamble) wandering down the street with his arm half blown off after a fireworks accident.  Michael makes fast friends with them, especially since Grady is causing his son to open up again, but there are little things about Oliver and Cheryl that bother him.  Are they really the All-American family that they would have him believe, or are they hiding something?

In the right role, Jeff Bridges can be a terrific actor.  With his laid-back style and unique drawl, there are some roles he was born to play (I'll admit that I haven't seen "The Big Lebowski," his most famous role).  But he is simply not right for modern-day Hitchcock movie.  With another actor in the role, some (but not all) of the problem's might be mild enough to overlook.  Bridges is fine when he plays the everyman, but when the "evidence" starts to pile up, he stops being able to convince.

His co-star, Tim Robbins, is excellent.  We all know a guy like Oliver Lang: polite, hospitable, goes to his son's scout meetings, knows how to grill a burger and drink a (cheap) beer at the same time.  Guys like him are everywhere, and that's how Robbins plays him.  It makes the film all the more chilling.  Paired with Joan Cusack, in a decidedly non-comic role like ones she is known for, they make for a suburban couple straight out of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine ad.  They, along with Pellington's eye for detail, provide an excellent foundation for the film.

Alas, the script by Ehren Kruger, is in need of some rewrites.  This was his first filmed screenplay before he went of to write, at least impart, "The Ring" and the "Transformer" movies.  He's not a bad screenwriter (if you remember, I liked "The Ring," and I also liked "Scream 3," which he also wrote), but his scripts tend to be unfinished.  The storyline and characters are good, but the second half is on the muddled side and the are definitely some contrivances.  Smooth out some of the obvious kinks in the screenplay and you'd have a winner.  It might also have saved the ending, which makes less sense the more you think about it.

All that aside, "Arlington Road" feels like a missed opportunity.  Pellington has presented the film as a Hitchcockian thriller.  There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but the film touches on some interesting material such as paranoia versus reality.  Hitchcock's playground was with the wrongfully accused or the guy who knows the truth but can't get anyone to take him seriously (or, more likely, both).  Had "Arlington Road" taken the extra mile and made this about the feeling of paranoia, this could have been a truly amazing thriller.

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