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Pulp Without Politics

Can Oliver Stone leave his obsessions behind?

Oliver Stone's low-budget, hopped-up film noir, U-Turn, is being billed as a change of pace for the Conspiracy Dude, but actually it looks quite at home in the maestro's hothouse. After all, aren't conspiracies and the workings of fate what noirs are all about?

Stone's JFK pulped history with the doomy fatalism and sentimentality of noir. Its jagged conspiratorial fantasies drew on the genre's stock notions: You can't win, all is doomed, everything's a plot. In U-Turn, Stone is reaching for the pulp without the politics. He's trying for noir as ritual dance. But Stone is too frenzied a filmmaker to keep the dance steps simple.

When Orson Welles made Touch of Evil -- a big influence on U-Turn -- he was flying so high as a filmmaker that pulp conventions could not contain him. He went in for so many expressionistic camera angles and characterizations that he practically created his own genre -- gargoyle noir.

Stone is trying for much the same thing: He wants to see how high he can get on moviemaking. But unlike Welles, Stone's hysterical stylistics in U-Turn -- the jump cuts and buggy camera angles and bleached-out cinematography -- don't enlarge the story for us, or make it funnier or scarier. They just make it more aggravating.

U-Turn serves up poor schnook Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), a smalltime gambler whose '64 red Mustang convertible breaks down in the scuzzy mining town of Superior, Arizona. Right away, Stone and his screenwriter John Ridley pull out a Value-Pak of noir types, Southwestern-style: Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton) is a white-trash car mechanic with mossy brown teeth; Jake (Nick Nolte) is a grizzled real-estate baron with rabbity choppers and rheumy eyes; his wife, Grace (Jennifer Lopez), is a pouty temptress who wiggles her ennui in Bobby's awestruck mug. She's the noir vixen around whom the plot turns. Does Bobby run off with her, or does he take Jake up on his offer to kill her for some much-needed cash?

Stone probably likes noir because it sanctions you to be as bad as you wanna be. Women are depicted as scheming destroyers; the aged and infirm are nightmarish, corrupt; white means white trash, and so on. Everybody in noir is assumed to be a worst-possible-case specimen. At its kickiest, U-Turn is a comedy based on that assumption: Superior, Arizona, is a town infested entirely with scum. Seemingly lost in time, it's practically a sci-fi landscape -- everybody's a moral mutant.

But for this scheme to work, we have to feel that the director, at some basic level, really believes in all that noir claptrap. One of the strongest suits of the current noir smash L.A. Confidential is its passion for the genre (even as it attempts to go beyond it). You never get the feeling in U-Turn that Stone has any great affection for noir pulp. He's too obsessed to be affectionate. He piles on references to Detour, Red Rock West, The Postman Always Rings Twice, even Duel in the Sun and the spaghetti Westerns, but they basically function as a kind of film-school quiz. What really stokes Stone is the opportunity to use pulp conventions to blow a gasket. U-Turn is the director's equivalent of that venerable acting exercise whereby you look into a mirror and go all nutty.

Stone can be such a high-powered filmmaker that his imagery often belies his stated intentions. Natural Born Killers -- the stylistic template for U-Turn -- was promoted as an anti-violence statement, and yet it was wound up by its violent excesses. JFK was pitched as a speculative scenario, and yet its whole momentum was to expose and explode -- to reveal not only the metaphorical but the literal truth.

Few directors keep their batteries charged from movie to movie as consistently as Stone. Whatever else you may say about his films, you can't really call any of them slack. But Stone's "energy" can be something you want to get away from. He's the kind of director who doesn't allow us to feel anything for ourselves -- our responses are strong-armed. He may appreciate noir because, as a genre, our responses are already built in.

Despite his inflammatory posture, Stone often reveals a conventional softy side: not only the hero-worship in JFK but the wise old Indian material in Natural Born Killers and the fallen warrior trappings of Nixon. (Did Stone finally sympathize with Tricky Dick because he recognized a kindred spirit?) In U-Turn, he's still falling back on conventional notions. Jon Voight's blind Apache Vietnam War vet spouts noble, gnomic "truths" -- he tells us, "Human beings aren't just human beings, they got animal inside them too" -- and he is Bobby's only friend in town. We're also periodically treated to picture-postcard desert vistas.

When Stone is trying to be scurvy and not picturesque, the results often aren't much better. I realize nobody has a patent on scorpions, but you'd think that after what Peckinpah did with them in The Wild Bunch, Stone would find another creepy-crawler to get all metaphorical about.

Penn is engaging in U-Turn, and yet he's blanked out by it. His energy comes from deep inside, so he's probably the wrong actor to play a patsy who is forever stymied. As a performer, Penn is all roiling interiors; Stone is all roiling exteriors. Watching Penn being acted upon for two hours is a form of deprivation, just as listening to Nolte growl like Tom Waits while he shoves his dentures in our face isn't exactly enriching. The actor who comes off best turns out to be Lopez, because at least Stone doesn't try to muck up her beauty. Her shiny raven mane is color-coordinated with the night sky.

No director in the world has received the sustained media attention of Stone, and yet the current spin on all this is that he is somehow an innocent party in the hoopla. The New York Times Magazine recently ran a Stone profile that quoted an associate as saying, "The media make you into a god, and then they kill you. And Oliver has been experiencing a difficult death." Is anybody buying this self-serving, bullying masochism? I'm not aware that, outside his own circle, Stone has ever been deified. As for the "killing," it can't match the stroking, which lately includes not only the Times profile but a recent Atlantic essay by Garry Wills comparing Stone to Dostoevsky.

Stone not only receives sustained media attention, he covets it. That attention is what gives his movies the force of manifestoes even when they're little more than screeds. It's understandable that, in U-Turn, he would want to make a movie that for once is not hashed out on the op-ed pages. But one shouldn't overvalue the film's smallness just because it's not trying to grab headlines. Actually, the film is getting the headlines anyway -- for being small. That's the stamp of a true media-manipulator champ.

U-Turn.
Directed by Oliver Stone.
With Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Claire Danes and Billy Bob Thornton.

Rated R.
125 minutes.

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