Review: Place Beyond the Pines is a great movie I didn’t like that much

Have you ever seen one of those episodes of Top Chef where a chef cooks something, and all the judges tell him that it’s technically brilliant, but lacks soul? I have no idea what that means as it relates to food, but I’m pretty sure it applies to Place Beyond the Pines, a movie that manages to feel great, but not particularly likable. You respect its ambition, its epic scope, the incredible acting, and its obvious craftsmanship, but there’s something oddly impersonal about it. You can easily recognize it as a “good movie” without developing much of a personal connection or a desire for repeat viewings. It’s possible that it’s too crafted. It’s like a girl you can tell is beautiful but that you’re not particularly attracted to.

First off, it’s not “Drive on a motorcycle,” as the trailer might lead you to believe (the quotes are mine, but look at that trailer and tell me I was wrong). Drive was all about the moment – so much so that the plot and the dialog (or lackthereof) often didn’t matter – whereas Pines, co-written and directed by Blue Valentine‘s Derek Cianfrance, is attempting something much bigger. It’s more like a contempo East of Eden starring Baby Goose with face tats, a multi-generational tale of intertwined families and the invisible hand of tradition. Gosling plays a sort of motorcycle carny, traveling from fair to county fair, riding his dirtbike around a big metal sphere for crowds of toothless funnel cake-eaters. His old fling Eva Mendes shows up at his show in Schenectady in the opening scene, wearing an incredibly thin t-shirt/no-bra combo that would’ve attracted at least 10 whistling dudes in hairnets at every county fair I’ve been to. They leave together, and soon we learn that Gosling put a baby Baby Goose in her last time he was in town, and is only just now finding out about it. Incidentally, the baby is played by a kid whose real name is “Anthony Pizza.” That doesn’t factor into the story, but I feel like knowing this will enhance your viewing experience.

Gosling is your classic “the only thing that matters to me now is my son” character, and he finds himself in the position of trying to prove he can provide for Braless Eva and little Tony Pizza as he tries to elbow her new boyfriend out of the picture. Obviously the job of Motorcycle Carny doesn’t pay like broking stocks, and anyway, he can’t go traveling around to different funnel cake camps all the time if he’s going to become a father to his son. So as an alternate measure, he hooks up with Ben Mendelsohn, one of the best damned actors in town and in this case, luckily for Baby Goose, a guy with a history of masterminding bank robberies. So initiates the motorcycle-bank-robber plot you see in the trailer that makes it look so much like Drive. But Pines is much more ambitious than that, folding in Bradley Cooper as a local cop with a law degree and a judge for a father, trying to good-guy his way through a corrupt police department full of sharks like Ray Liotta. Cooper eventually crosses paths with Gosling, and their fates become intertwined, as do those of Tony Pizza and Bradley Cooper’s crabcake-eating little WASPlette, who they actually make into a Jersey Shore-style super guido from Troy, NY in this. That’s right, Bradley Cooper’s son. Talk about a twist. Brad Cooper’s Baby Guido hooks up with the grown-up Tony Pizza, played by Chronicle‘s Dan DeHaan, who you know is supposed to be troubled because he never combs his goddamned hair.

As I was watching Pines, I was consistently impressed, but also wondering over and over what it was about it that I wasn’t connecting with, despite its obvious technical brilliance and admirable ambition. I think the issue is that Pines seems to be more about inevitability than about possibility. There’s an airlessness to inevitability. Inevitability can be acknowledged, but it’s not very constructive unless you go beyond, and it’s the beyond Pines has trouble with. It’s a movie where the past doesn’t just inform the future, it dooms it. More and more as it goes on, the characters often feel like they don’t have a choice.

The inter-generational aspect of Pines had me going back over and over to East of Eden for comparison. There must be something in that, because I haven’t read that book in years. The crux of that book (which is fantastic, I don’t give a shit that Oprah put it in her book club) is the translation of a verb in Genesis. Translated variously as “do thou” or “thou shalt,” the Chinese cook Lee, through study of Hebrew, decides the proper translation is actually “thou mayest.” But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?

In Pines, the characters seem so hamstrung by the past, and it feels cinematic, but not necessarily truthful, and certainly not inspiring. I admit, some of it depends on your interpretation of the last two scenes, but Place Beyond the Pines struck me as much more of a “you shall” movie than a “you may.”

As in, “thou mayest” quote Steinbeck in a movie review like an asshole. Yeah, I probably should’ve just stuck with “hey girl” jokes.