Sean Penn's Into the Wild illustrates, in a sketchy hand, the Jon Krakauer nonfiction book on Christopher McCandless, a 1990 college graduate, on the doorstep of Harvard Law School, who gave away his tuition fund to Oxfam, obliterated his identity, renamed himself Alexander Supertramp, and swapped the evils of society for the purity of the northern wilderness ("No longer to be poisoned by civilization," he carved into a wooden shingle at his encampment), where ultimately he starved to death in 1992. It may not sound like much of an idea for a film. It isn't. A Seventies-style road movie, redolent of Seventies-style disaffection, it has a strong element of travelogue, as our happy-go-lucky hobo rides his aging Datsun westward to South Dakota, abandons it at Lake Mead, kayaks down the Colorado River, drifts into Mexico, train-hops up to L.A., thumbs his way to the Salton Sea, Anza Borrego, and Alaska. In that final destination, the travelogue veers toward nature documentary.
At nearly two and a half hours, the film feels very, very long, albeit short on relatable incident. The protagonist goes places, he meets people, and then he goes to a place where he won't meet people, where he will meet only his end, a martyr to something or other. Penn generates a certain degree of what we could call superficial activity, by chopping up the narrative nonsequentially and throwing into it a lot of split-screen effects and other editing tricks. Primarily, however, an actor's director (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge), he gets plenty of good hard work from his cast, particularly the unassuming Emile Hirsch in the lead, although, as a firm believer in wearing one's guts on one's sleeve, and the drippier the better, he is oftentimes prone to flog his troupe into emotional boil-over: e.g., William Hurt, as the aggressive, success-oriented, domineering father, sinking to the seat of his pants in the middle of the street, bunching the knees in his fists, and broadcasting his agony to the moon. (The director exercises a gentler touch with a few well-selected unfamiliar faces.) He unmistakably takes himself very seriously, and takes his protagonist almost reverently, painting him as something of a holy fool (a reader of Tolstoi, even though an eater of meat when he can get it), and offering up this speculative re-enactment as nothing less than an endorsement. At the top, he sets the tone with a high-flown epigraph from Lord Byron: "I love not man the less, but Nature more" -- that one. The kid sister, Jena Malone, periodically supplies some explanatory narration ("I understand what he was doing"), and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder chimes in with a half-dozen or so acoustic songs in sympathy and support. The final descent into death, a blameless bit of bad luck, seems sudden and rapid, all the more so for the nonsequentiality. Of the real protagonist's earnestness and conviction, the film can tell us next to nothing. Of the filmmaker's, it can tell us much. And then it can tell us again. And again.
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Feast of Love, a multi-player mating game on the playing field of Portland, Ore., is essentially soap opera with philosophical aspirations and a tendency to talk them at us. The first voice we hear is the authoritative one of Morgan Freeman, intermittent sage narrator and on-screen careful observer of the human comedy. A professor (of what?) at Portland State, on an extended leave of absence after the fatal drug overdose of his adult son, he himself is a gray-haired black man in a stable relationship with a white-haired white woman (Jane Alexander), and the blessed absence of comment on interracial marriage is a rare show of restraint. The proprietor (Greg Kinnear) of a corner coffee house called Jitters, a favorite observation post for the professor, is not so stable in his relationships. His wife (Selma Blair) walks out on him with the shortstop (Stana Katic) who brought out the inner lesbian by tagging her on the rump at a women's softball game. Once that aspect of love -- that dish in the feast -- has been acknowledged, the film has no more interest in the lesbians. But a new woman (Radha Mitchell), a realtor, comes into the coffee house and the life of the proprietor, providing him a new home and a new lover, while at the same time secretly carrying on with a married man (Billy Burke), one of her former realty clients, and eventually driving the coffee man to minor self-mutilation: "I wanted to feel in my body as much pain as I feel in my heart." Then there's the pretty-boy barista at Jitters (Toby Hemingway), an ex-junkie whose heart does a backflip for a free spirit (Alexa Davalos) who breezes in off the street and applies for an unadvertised job: "I just kind of felt a harmonic convergence in this place." The young lovers' prospects are clouded by the boy's brutish drunken father (Fred Ward, inventively venting his rage on a bag of groceries), by their financial straits (little alleviated via ill-advised moonlighting in Internet porn), and by an unfavorable reading from a frumpy fortune-teller (Margo Martindale).
All of this is mildly interesting, in a low-suds sort of way, but the relentless effort to transform it into a Big Statement ("God is either dead or He despises us." "God doesn't despise us, Harry. If He did, He wouldn't have made our hearts so brave") tends to produce the opposite of the effect intended, not so much heightening the interest as highlighting the mildness -- highlighting, in other words, the distance between the tall talk and the flat mundanity. It was a bad idea, for instance, to be playing such an interesting song as Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" behind the young lovers' billing and cooing, so that you want to tell them snappishly to shush. When all is said and done, none of the expansive talk adds greater interest than the expanses of flesh, female only. Robert Benton, of Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, and perhaps most pertinently Billy Bathgate (if you remember Nicole Kidman in the full-length mirror), directed.