Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Coronji Calhoun, Sean Combs
Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Language and Violence
If there's anything worse than a bad movie, it's a bad movie that thinks it's a good movie. At least "The Great Wall" or "Fist Fight" didn't have any illusions about what they were. They were crap movies made to make a quick buck from the most undemanding audience members. "Monster's Ball" is too well-acted, or rather has two actors that are too good, for it to be as bad as either of those movies. At the same time, it's convinced it's an "important" movie. Gag.
In a nutshell, "Monster's Ball" is about sad people finding a way to bond in their sadness. Leticia Musgrove (Berry) is the mother of a grossly overweight child named Tyrell (Calhoun), is barely able to make ends meet, and her husband (Combs) is about to be executed for murdering a police officer. One of his executioners, Hank Grotowski (Thornton), is also hurting. His father Buck (Boyle) is a dying old man who hurls painful insults at every turn, and his boy Sonny(Ledger) is a complete wimp. But when Leticia and Hank each suffer a personal tragedy, they find solace in the last place they would expect: each other.
D'aww...I think I'm tearing up!
Truth be told, it's not the central material that I have a problem with. This could have been a riveting, emotional powerhouse. But the characters are one-dimensional at best, and director Marc Foster plays it safe at every turn. Other than their recent backstories, we know nothing about Hank or Leticia, and even less about Buck, Sonny or Tyrell. In order for a movie like this to work, the two central characters have to be fully realized individuals who act according to their natures. That doesn't happen here. Hank and Leticia are dull clichés.
Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry are way too good for this material. They do what they can, but the screenplay is so thin and the direction so self-indulgent that there's little that they can do. In an attempt to save it, they underplay their roles (except for the obligatory scenes of high tragedy and passion), but it doesn't work. The late Heath Ledger shows flashes of who would eventually become Ennis del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain," but he's only on screen for ten minutes. Only Peter Boyle merits mention, playing a cruel racist. He leaves an impression.
I guess Marc Foster thought he was making a movie that shed new light on the human condition or was being daring by showing an interracial romance. If that was the case, he was mistaken. There's nothing here that hasn't been seen in other, better movies about grief ("In the Bedroom") or "opposites attract" romance (any romantic comedy). The film is so empty of ideas that there are times when it becomes a parody of art house movies where the characters speak in monotones and talk a lot without actually saying anything. There's also a bit involving a gas station that is meant to be moving but is actually unintentionally funny.
If nothing else, "Monster's Ball" shows you that even with a top flight cast and a good director, you can still end up with a piece of crap. Especially if the screenplay sucks.