Review: Roland Emmerich insults both audience and subject in rotten ‘Stonewall’

I'm sure they meant well.

And by “they,” I mean director Roland Emmerich, screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz, and the sprawling ensemble cast who all worked to make a movie that commemorates the Stonewall riots in New York, one of the flashpoints of the gay rights movement in America. The idea of making a film that captures not only the community that found its activist voice that day but that also articulates the tensions and the atmosphere that made the riots feel so urgent and necessary in the first place is a good idea, and perhaps one day, someone will make that movie. Unfortunately, “Stonewall” is the anti-“Selma,” a movie that not only fails to fully capture the energy and importance of a true event but that fails so completely as a film that it is almost impressive.

Danny (Jeremy Irvine) is a small-town kid who had to leave home when his father the Coach (David Cubitt) learned that Danny was gay, and when he arrives in New York, he's just looking to find a place to crash until autumn arrives and he can start as a freshman at Columbia. He's about two minutes off the bus when he runs headlong into a cast of characters drawn do broadly that it makes William Friedkin's “Boys In The Band” look subtle and stereotype-free, and things never ever settle down into anything like reality. This is afterschool special-level “message movie” movie-making, and Emmerich has absolutely no knack for it at all.

Are we surprised, though? Really? Subtle has never been a tool that Emmerich has utilized, and when you look at the work he does in “Independence Day,” the blockbuster success that put him on the map, he obviously paints in broad stereotypes. He does it in film after film, from “Godzilla,” where Jean Reno guest-stars as Frenchy Le Francais, to “The Patriot,” with Jason Isaacs delivering a stirring performance as Pompous British Bad Guy. This isn't even about whether or not he's painting in ethnic or cultural stereotypes, but about the fact that that he makes movies where everyone speaks in subtext, when he clearly wants to be making movies that work on a deeper level. “Anonymous” is a movie that genuinely believes itself to be smart and subtle and witty, and I think it falls short of all three targets. With “Stonewall,” there's this profound desire to tell a larger story about what it meant to be homosexual at that particular time in that particular place, using Danny as a way in.

But the Stonewall riots were real. Someone really threw the first rock, and someone really fought to help free Storme DeLarverie from handcuffs, and someone really had to face down the cops who lost control of the raid they ran on the Stonewall Inn. The reason you make the film is because there were real people who stood up and demanded to be treated like human beings, and because they put themselves in harm's way for real, and making some invented stereotype designed to somehow encompass all of gay experience into one character the person who is the primary hero of the event is deeply insulting, both to the people the story is about and the audience you're hoping to reach.

There's such a dense story that could be told using the actual characters, the actual events, and that would paint a rich and compelling portrait of where we were as a country in 1969, as well as where we are now, but no one involved in “Stonewall” seems interested in really telling that story. In fact, the title is part of the problem, because it feels like they're aiming at telling a larger story, and so much of the film is instead completely consumed by the story about whether or not Danny is going to get his college education and his attempts to talk to his sister back home and no matter how much I empathize with the ideas in those scenes, they are played at a tone like someone is screaming at you the entire time. Richard Jutras sets the tone in the very first scene of the film as Queen Tooey, a predatory older fixture on Christopher Street, hitting on Danny with all the nuance of a “Mad” magazine movie parody. Jonny Beauchamp is Ray, the street hustler who befriends Danny and brings him into the world, a thankless role as written, but Emmerich's choice of tone means that Beauchamp has to play Ray at such a fever pitch, whether he's flirting or hustling or crying or serving as a firebrand riot leader, that it is embarrassing.

That's the key word here: embarrassing. I would be embarrassed by this movie if I were Emmerich, who has not just made a bad movie here, but a movie that feels like a relic of the age it's about, not a movie that gives us any perspective on that time. If his goal was to illuminate the real events, he failed. If his goal was to tell a personal story against that backdrop that worked in its own right, he failed. If his goal was to present recognizable human behavior in any form, he failed. It is infuriating to me that this far into his career, he's still this bad at the basics of character and tone, and when you're telling a story like this, one that feels as timely and urgent as “Selma” did last fall, it is inexcusable to fumble it this completely. I don't care who you are or how much you want to be open to the message of this movie… it is a failure, a disaster as big as the ones that normally serve as the subjects of Emmerich's “movies.”

“Stonewall” opens on Friday.