Movie review: ‘Wildlife’ is too tame
With what has to be the most ironic title of the year, “Wildlife” is not just tame, it’s for the most part lifeless, a meandering exercise with all the excitement and emotion of a two-hour stare down. It’s also derivative, unimaginative and a tonal disaster; definitely not an aspiring debut for actor Paul Dano as a director. But it’s his script, co-written with his partner, Zoe Kazan, that’s his undoing in adapting Richard Ford’s 1990 novel about a crumbling Montana family in the closing days of the Eisenhower administration.
No complaints about Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan and their earnest portrayals of nomads Jerry and Jeanette Brinson, a couple living on the edge emotionally and financially, as their relationships with each other and their 14-year-old son, Joe (solid newcomer Ed Oxenbould), succumb to an extraordinary display of selfishness and anger. But great acting can only carry you so far before it becomes an exercise in futility. For Gyllenhaal and Mulligan that point comes when the suddenly unemployed Jerry (he’s a golf caddy) feels emasculated and decides to resuscitate his machismo by volunteering to head north from their Great Falls home to help fight a raging forest fire at a premium $1 an hour.
Jeanette’s response is not only indignant; it’s a sudden, unexplained change in temperament that can only be described as bordering on multiple personality disorder. One minute she’s June Cleaver, the next she’s Joan Crawford, taking her abandonment issues out on her angelic son in a series of cruel tirades that seemingly come out of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, Mulligan is excellent at delivering the level of rage the script calls for, but it never rings true. Same with Oxenbould, dutifully looking forever shocked and disappointed by his mother’s increasingly slutty and psychotic behavior.
You’d think he might summon the whitecoats after one or two of her unprovoked tirades, or her overt trysts with wealthy local car dealer, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a cigar-smoking chump who’d make most people’s skin crawl. But, no, Joe just sits there in a subtle stupor staring in disappointment at a mother who’s gone from prim school teacher to hard-drinking vamp in what seems like a snap of the fingers. It’s the sort of second-rate Tennessee Williams that would get most people tossed from the writer’s guild, but Dano, the director, allows it to drag on unchecked.
That is until the snow begins to fly and Jerry returns from the hills to discover his loving wife has become the town lush, glass of wine in hand and all her physical attributes prominently displayed inside slinky, low-cut dresses that would make Stormy Daniels blush. What’s a guy to do? How about a little arson, which is good because at the 75-minute mark it’s high time somebody lit a match under this arid driftwood. But even that is more smolder than fire. It’s capped only by a flame-out ending that can best be deemed laughable.
When that feeble finale does arrive, you’re left asking yourself, “What was that?” Darned if I can figure it out. And that’s Dano’s most glaring weakness as a director: There’s no clear message. Is it a statement on the limpness of male masculinity? A feminist tale about an independent female rebelling against the restraints put on her professionally and sexually at a time when society thought a woman’s place was in the home? Or is it what I took it for: Just another of the dozens of coming-of-age stories about a bright, young teen appalled by the childish behavior of his narcissistic parents? Whatever it is, the one thing’s for sure, “Wildlife” is a beautifully shot, well-acted enterprise that makes strong use of its time and place. But as a story in which passions fade instead of burn, “Wildlife” pretty much goes up in smoke.
— Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cast includes Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Zoe Margaret Colletti and Bill Camp.
(PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language and smoking.)