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October 20, 2018

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United States of Leland, The
(Reviewed April 2, 2004)
Rating: Not worthy of a star
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In the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up, a generation of moony youths like myself felt the tremendously liberating effect of being told, right at the beginning of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, that they were to be spared "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" that up until then had been expected of serious fiction. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield was to be a hero whose life was not in his biography but in his feelings. But if I were 16 or 17 years old today, I think I would feel a comparable sense of relief in being told that I was to have to get through no Holden Caulfield kind of crap. For the curious sort of canting, self-congratulatory Puritanism that goes with being not more holy but more sensitive than one’s neighbors — like poor Holden — has now become every bit the cliché that the poor boy’s struggles to make good were to the Victorians.

At any rate, there is no such relief from Matthew Ryan Hoge’s The United States of Leland. From the moment before the opening credits when you hear the plangent notes of the acoustic guitar and see the astigmatic jumping of the camera lens while a voiceover intones teenage profundities about life being in pieces that can’t be put together, you know what you are in for here: more of the Holden Caulfield kind of crap. Actually you know it even before that if you know that Kevin Spacey is one of the movie’s producers. The film is like a résumé of his film career. His self-pitying Lester Burnham in American Beauty (1999) was a sort of grown-up version of Holden Caulfield — if that’s not a contradiction in terms — and appealed to exactly the same sort of feelings-snobbery.

In Leland he also plays the part of the thoroughly nasty father, a celebrity novelist, to the film’s Holden, one Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling).This, I guess, is Mr Spacey’s idea of versatility: that he can play either the sensitive sheep or the insensitive goat with equal ease.

Sensitive youths and weak or absent fathers naturally go together like horses and carriages. Just think of James Dean, Hollywood’s answer to the craze for moody sensitivity started by Salinger and the Beats in the 1950s. We tend to forget now that in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) he wasn’t without a cause at all: he wanted to make his linguini-spined dad, played by Jim Backus, stand up to his domineering mother, the splendid Ann Doran. Hollywood-feminism, though not the same thing as regular feminism, would never let a filmmaker get away with something like that today. Now dad’s got to be the villain. But Mr Spacey’s gratuitous absence of feeling for Leland is so over-the-top that he seems to have no other function than to represent "the Patriarchy" — every progressive’s favorite punching bag for, lo, these many years.

And as his wickedness is exaggerated to the point of caricature, so is his son’s existential saintliness. True, he is — like Camus’s Meursault in L’Etranger — a murderer. But, see, he’s really a good murderer. He kills a retarded boy because he feels sorry for him. "I saw sadness everywhere; I saw it worst in Ryan," he finally confesses. "There’s always sadness. There’s nothing you can do about it." Except to put the sad person out of his misery, I guess. It reminds one of the mercy killing of Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) by Michael Sarrazin — to whose explanation that she really wanted to die the investigating officer says to his mate something like this: "Obliging bastard, ain’t he?" I myself am more inclined to the view of the cynical guard in the juvenile detention home to which Leland is taken that he is an "SFK" or "Sick F***ing Kid."

In this respect he resembles Mr Spacey’s John Doe, the serial killer in David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), who also takes it upon himself to right the wrongs of the world by murder. It is perhaps only a spell in the detention center — where he is befriended and admired by a creative writing teacher called Pearl (Don Cheadle) — which presumably prevents him from becoming a serial killer too. For if you believe that sadness is punishable by death and you see sadness everywhere, what else are we to think? Of course, there’s no point in expecting anything like consistency from young Leland. He just likes having feelings, and especially, like Holden, having feelings on behalf of other people: "I feel all their sadness," he says of the people he sees around him. I guess we’re supposed to thank him.

If you detect in this kind of self-proclaimed expansiveness of spirit just the slightest hint of a Christ complex — young Leland takes upon himself all the sadness of the world — it can hardly be accidental. You only have to call to mind a couple of other Kevin Spacey movies, Pay it Forward (2000) and K-Pax (2001), both of them featuring central characters who are too good, too noble, too caring, too feeling for this "s***hole" world, as someone describes it in the former movie. Mr Spacey is of course one of Hollywood’s best known progressives, and it is interesting to speculate on the connection between this pessimistic, almost despairing view of life and his brand of politics. As in American Beauty one gets the impression that such people turn to politics at all only so that they can try, presumably vainly, to make the rest of the world as good as themselves. Yuck!




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