"Promised Land" is, at first blush, an appealing film: set in a small, bucolic farming town in the heartland, and starring two accomplished actors: Matt Damon as Steve Butler, an earnest corporate type, and Frances McDormand, portraying his colleague Sue Thomason.
They travel by bus and rented car across the heartland, leasing land from economically depressed farmers. Their promise: extraordinary wealth. The caveat is that the company they represent, Global Crosspower Solutions, will arrive shortly thereafter and begin drilling for natural gas. It's called fracking.
Their latest stop is rural McKinley, Pa., where they begin going from farm to farm, hoping to sign up the locals.
Neither Steve nor Sue offer any information regarding the possible downside to fracking, and their no-worries promises go unchallenged until an environmentalist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), arrives with pictures of dead cows and scorched fields due to the chemicals used during extraction.
What "Promised Land" offers is a familiar template: the metamorphosis of Steve from reflexive corporate salesman to a person who, when confronted with certain truths, begins to question what he is selling. Certain locals help him along his journey toward enlightenment, from a well-schooled old codger, Frank (Hal Holbrook), to an appealing schoolteacher, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Sue, in contrast, attacks her job as just that, a job. McDormand's dry wit and detachment are just about right for the role. And even when GCS is discovered to be unreservedly Machiavellian, Sue shrugs and keeps on going (or fracking, as the case may be).
Now, this film has the requisite recipe: a solid issue (fracking is, today, a boom industry, sold as clean energy with little downside, absent any serious environmental impact), plus the appealing idea that there is something inherently wonderful about living in a two-story farmhouse surrounded by verdant acreage, peopled by down-to-earth folks whose values resonate. And the cast is top-drawer.
But for reasons that are a bit elusive, "Promised Land" misses what should have been the sweet spot. It doesn't feel like the characters, including Steve, are emotionally invested in the issue of fracking, on either side. Written by Damon (he co-wrote "Good Will Hunting") and Krasinski, the movie fails to create in Steve an individual ready to vigorously defend what he's doing with specific data and a well-rehearsed corporate rationale. Hence, when he begins to doubt, it doesn't feel like the stakes are that high.
Damon and Krasinski also add a strange and unexpected twist at the end of the film. Unfortunately, to discuss it with any specificity would rob the viewer of an important surprise. But suffice it to say, it explains, in part, the absence of hard edges around the issue of fracking, at least for the environmentalist.
Leaving the movie "Les Miserables" a woman turned to me and said she hates to cry in public, even in a darkened theater. Clearly, she was touched.
In contrast, I felt that director Tom Hooper's film was long, overwrought, and had, in part, abandoned the essence of Victor Hugo's powerful story of oppression, liberation, love, and redemption. What has made Hugo's narrative so timeless is the resonating tension created as Jean Valjean constructs a new life and disguise, settling in a small French town where he is a successful factory owner and mayor. He is, of course, threatened by the relentless Inspector Javert who suspects that he has encountered Valjean before.
And so Hugo's tale grows ever more complex, fraught with unexpected events, the only certainty being that Valjean's secret identity (a man who has broken parole after 19 years in prison) grows ever more tenuous.
I would argue that the dramatic impact of this compelling story is diminished by what is, essentially, an operatic adaptation (there is no dialogue) wherein the story itself seems almost rushed. In fact, it could be argued, the songs, some lyrical, though boldly performed by a fine cast, led by Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway portraying Fantine, ultimately distract more than enhance. Or so it seemed to me.
I am mindful that "Les Miz" has been translated into 21 languages, performed in 43 countries before 63 million people, winning 100 awards, to include a Tony and a Grammy. Clearly it has found an audience. But for me, its saving grace: no dancing.