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The Place off the A-List

by Ross Douthat

A review of The Place Beyond the Pines

What are we to make of Ryan Gosling? In certain ways, he’s one of the premier actors of his generation — the thinking woman’s sex symbol, the heartthrob who actually cares about his craft, with the mix of cool, intelligence, and vulnerability that we associate with A-list leading men. Yet he’s made disappointingly few movies that are actually successful as movies, rather than as showcases for his magnetism and dramatic chops.

It’s not for want of trying: Gosling has appeared in a lot of interesting small films and a lot of respectable bigger ones, and he’s single-handedly made flawed experiments more watchable and elevated trashy melodramas above their station. But none of his movies has united critics and audiences in the way that true stardom usually requires. So while it feels like he could end up in the same league as Nicholson, Pacino, and Newman, his filmography doesn’t merit those comparisons. He’s been headlining movies for more than a decade, but he’s still waiting for a Chinatown or Cuckoo’s Nest, a Godfather or Serpico, a Butch Cassidy or Cool Hand Luke.

For a little while, his latest film seems like it might be that breakthrough. The Place Beyond the Pines has promising ingredients. The director is Derek Cianfrance, who helmed Gosling’s best small movie to date, the art-house downer Blue Valentine. The cast is stellar — Gosling shares top billing with Bradley Cooper, another actor obviously hungry for an adult form of stardom; he shares great scenes and chemistry with the Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn; and they’re joined by Rose Byrne, Eva Mendes, and Ray Liotta in supporting roles. And Pines has big ambitions: It’s at once intimate and sprawling, weaving multiple lives and generations into a story of crimes and punishments, fathers and sons, all set against the deep greens and rusting red-browns of Schenectady, N.Y.

The first act belongs to Gosling’s character, Luke. We see him first as a tattooed body headed into a carnival tent for his motorcycle act — a wild spin around the interior of a globe-shaped metal “Cave of Death.” Then we see him reconnect with a local woman (Mendes) with whom he had a fling the last time he passed through Schenectady — and with whom, he discovers, he had a child as well. This intelligence persuades him to stay put when the carnival moves on, and the place he finds to crash belongs to an auto mechanic (Mendelsohn) who happens to be a retired bank robber. Their easy friendship, Luke’s motorcycle skills, and his desire to provide for his kid all point in the same direction: Soon enough he’s speeding into banks instead of tents, and speeding back out with bags of ill-gotten cash.

The robberies go well until they don’t, at which point the movie shifts perspectives, introducing Cooper’s character, a straight-arrow Schenectady cop named Avery with a wife (Byrne), a son, and a powerful politician father whose shadow he’s trying to escape. Here the bank-robbery plot gives way to a police-corruption plot, in which Cooper’s Avery learns about Realpolitik the hard way, even as his relationship with his family frays. And then finally the story leaps forward 15 years, and we realize that the arcs of both Gosling and Cooper are the set-up for a dénouement involving their teenage sons, their families’ buried secrets, and the long shadow of the past.

This last leap, unfortunately, is a disaster for the film. The boys are miscast: The lanky, pasty Dane DeHaan is believable as Gosling’s son but not as Mendes’s, while the pouty, puffy Emory Cohen looks and talks more like a refugee from a Long Island variation on Jersey Shore than the son of Cooper and Byrne’s WASPy upstate couple. DeHaan at least can act; Cohen evinces no such talent. Their story is supposed to vindicate the movie’s sprawl and shifting points of view; instead, it makes everything that’s happened since Gosling ceded the spotlight feel like a waste of time. Indeed, with the possible exception of There Will Be Blood, I can’t think of another recent movie with such a stark drop-off in quality from the first hour to the last.

The ambition animating The Place Beyond the Pines is still impressive, and Cianfrance’s film is memorable and immersive despite ultimately feeling like a misfire. But for anyone following its star’s not-quite-fulfilled career, and hoping that he finds the vehicles his talent deserves, that “not quite, not quite” feeling is all too familiar. Once again, alas, Ryan Gosling has made an interesting-but-flawed movie that’s worth seeing mostly because it has Ryan Gosling in it.

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