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Billy Summers: 'Promised Land' is a good flick about nothing

Jan. 11, 2013 @ 09:48 AM

Someone once told me to beware of any movie that is written by the person(s) who star in it. Although some movies have been great successes, such as Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” and Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade,” others — such as Jon Favreau’s “Swingers” — have been only marginally successful.

The new movie, “Promised Land,” is directed by Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk,” “My Own Private Idaho”), who directed a movie that Matt Damon wrote with friend Ben Affleck.

More than 15 years after his success with “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon (“Good Will Hunting,” the “Bourne” series, “The Departed”) stars as Steve Butler, a big business pitchman who sells dreams to those living in a nightmare.  

Damon’s character is the best at what he does, which is selling drowning farmers on the life raft of an idea that drilling for natural gas underneath their land will “save the farm.”

His coworker is Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Burn After Reading,” “Almost Famous”) as the extremely practical Sue Thomason, a woman who is focused on the sale, and nothing else.  

Sue is the voice of economic reason, as Butler becomes disenchanted with the high pressure sales tactics of a product that has become ecologically questionable.

The extremely attractive Rosemarie DeWitt (“The Watch,” “The United States of Tara,” “Rachel Getting Married”) appears as Alice, the wholesome “Breck Girl” schoolteacher who turns Steve’s head away from Corporate Greed and toward good ol’ family values.

In the meantime, third wheel Dustin Noble arrives in town, played by John Krasinski (“The Office,” “Leatherheads,” “Jarhead”), who also co-wrote this modern fable against corporate tyranny. Noble seems to be the ecofriendly smile, charming his way into, not only the farm folks hearts, but into Alice’s as well.

Although most, if any, romantic sparks between she and Noble are intimated and not actually pictured, leaving it to the audience to decide whether she is as much of a “good girl” as she seems, or if she collects handsome strangers like Leatherface collects 20-somethings on a meat hook.

Nice second-tier performances are given by the veteran, Hal Holbrook (“Evening Shade,” “Lincoln,” “Designing Women”) as Frank Yates, local science teacher/informed ecology-minded citizen, and Titus Welliver (“Gone, Baby, Gone,” “Argo,” “The Town”) as Rob, the convenience store owner, who becomes pretty darn convenient as the other romantic spark for the pair of traveling salesmen.

The IS a story somewhere in “Promised Land,” it’s up to the viewer to decide what it is. Were you to look at it one way, it could be a “you CAN come home again” rebirth tale, done much better by Kurt Russell in “Amber Waves” (1980).

This could be a great ecology lesson, if it went deeper into the “fracking” debate and made more of the environmental consequences issues involved. For my money, it’s a movie about the corporate Big Brother, the so-called One Percent, who keeps the world going ‘round and ‘round, even as it uses and abuses people like they are simple cogs in the machine.

The fact that Butler’s company not only “plays” the local farmers, but its own employees as well, speaks volumes, and makes me wonder how the higher ups in these kinds of businesses can even sleep at night.

As far as movie making goes, there are some odd moments, here, such as how an out-of-town salesman put together a town fair in only a couple of days, or why the local school teacher can pick up the cute newcomer in a bar and take him home, in a small town atmosphere, without EVERYONE in town whispering about it the next day. That, in itself, is more unbelievable that alien invasions or “one man verses an army” concepts in Movieland.

“Promised Land” is a good movie about nothing, a Jerry Seinfeld version of “Green Acres.” It keeps you interested in the characters and their situations, but not in the outcome. Where this movie ends, the viewer should be left hanging, but for me, that wasn’t the case. It’s was like, “I wonder if it’s still cold outside, and where am I going to eat?”

Billy Summers is a freelance photographer who also reviews films for the Putnam Herald. He can be reached at summers855@yahoo.com.