Oliver Stone, perhaps tired of historical revisionism, has decided to cool out his savage psyche and make what can best be called an "entertainment." Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), on the lam from the Russian mob in Vegas, blows the radiator on his steed and is forced through the dusty-looking glass of Superior, Ariz. After haggling with a smarmy grease monkey (Billy Bob Thornton) over repairs, he is set upon by Gloria (Jennifer Lopez), a part-Indian naïf with black widow instincts. She's the wife of Jake (Nick Nolte imitating Yosemite Sam as a pedophile), a jealous real estate baron.
In the background are a host of local weirdos, played by, among others, Claire Danes, Joaquin Phoenix and Jon Voight. When Penn gives the most restrained performance in a film, you know there's a problem. Indeed, U-Turn is all very outlandish and overheated, part Wild at Heart, part Natural Born Killers, part Duel in the Sun, part The Hot Spot, with a few jabs at Quentin Tarantino thrown in for good measure.
Considering how predominantly the desert figures in Stone's over-the-hill hippie cosmology, he shows remarkable restraint in his symbolism. During the interminable two hours, only one snake makes an appearance -- no lizards, no shamans and ... no Jim Morrison.
Nonetheless, thanks to some very mystic time-lapse shots of sunsets, scrub and cacti, Stone lets us know that desert is the real hero of the film, eternally sacred, eternally unforgiving. Surely a remake of El Topo must be in the works.
Yes, the wretched Ollie brings his instant Zen aesthetic style to bear on the entire proceedings -- Cubist editing, quadruple dissolves, fast motion, you name it. And in the first hour, it works quite well with the material, tuning us into Bob's increasing sense of paranoid disorientation and the spaced-out, out-of-time Southwest Americana that gives Superior its psychotic tang.
But as usual, the tricks are overused. Robert Richardson's bleached fashion-mag photography (think Diesel Jeans ads) is far too glossy and self-conscious to take at face value. And let us not forget Ennio Morricone's pastiche-ridden score in which he parodies his own work for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.
Able to make neither a real film noir nor a Western, Stone gives us a splashy cartoon of a film noir bastardized with cheap Western inflections. As a result, the gulf between style and substance is, to say the least, yawning.
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.