BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC What would it take to rouse Robert DeNiro out of his deep slumber? When did we see last him conscious, maybe the sullen ex-con in 1997’s Jackie Brown, maybe the heist mastermind in 1998’s Ronin? In this past decade it seems that the man who was once America’s most respected actor is most engaged when chasing Ben Stiller around the suburbs in the Meet The Parents franchise. A melancholy autumn of a career indeed.
Stone might have perked him up. It’s a chamber piece, it has only four roles and DeNiro has a fine cast of actors to brush up against. He plays Jack, a dutiful employee of the prison parole board, wrapping up his final case before retirement. The man whose future he holds in his hands goes by the name of Stone (let that name be a metaphor alert), a prisoner convicted of setting a fire that killed his grandparents. It’s Ed Norton in the title role, with corn-row hair and a raspy, uneducated patter, you may have to snicker for a while before you get used to his fairly believable performance. He has a wife waiting on the outside, the devoted Lucetta, played by the ever-game Milla Jovovich. Jack’s got a wife too, but she’s the long-suffering type, played by Six Feet Under‘s matriarch Frances Conroy.
Stone wavers between being a character study and a thriller. Deniro’s Jack is a drawn to religion, he drives across the barren Michigan landscape forever listening to radio preachers commenting on the state of his soul. His job is to decide whether Stone is contrite enough to be released but in an opening flashback we know that Jack once dangled his child out a second story window, Michael Jackson style, when his wife threatened to leave. When Stone taunts him with the question of why Jack is walking free and he is not, we know the state of their damaged souls are intertwined.
The suspense is injected when Stone gives his sexy wife the o.k. to seduce Jack in order to assure his release. Jack suspects he is being played but could the touch of a young woman help melt his own stony exterior? The suspicion that something deeper is going on in this plot to spring Stone helps to give the story some mid-film intrigue but things ultimately turn soft-headed when the film starts to take all its religious blather seriously, with the characters hearing the voice of God in their meditative silences. The ending is both anti-climactic and too pat, presenting a hand of God that soothes the character’s troubled souls.
None of this might have mattered if DeNiro’s constricted, reserved sinner could portray the tumultuous emotions he is holding within himself. DeNiro could have pulled that off at one time, he could have done almost nothing and made it unbearably dramatic. Nowadays, he does nothing and, it’s nothing. The film is being clever by making the title refer to both Jack and his inmate client, the sad thing is that DeNiro, The Actor could be the title character as well.