By Laurie Coker
I have followed Matt Damon’s career, along with Ben Affleck’s, since their coupling in Good Will Hunting. Both have grown wonderfully as actors and men. Affleck’s Argo sits near the top of my best of list this year, but alas, Damon’s offering, Promised Land hardly qualifies to sit anywhere near Argo, but then again, it wouldn’t make my worst list either. A simple, one-dimensional script by Damon and co-writer/actor John Krasinski (with Dave Eggers) makes for a sometimes cute, wholly predictable and ultimately lackluster drama, regardless of its impressive cast.
Damon stars as Steve Butler, a charming corporate executive, working with Sue Thomason (undeniably talented Frances McDormand) trying to buy up drillable land in the poor farming town of McKinley, with the idea of making big bucks for his company, Global Crosspower Solutions, and ending an economic decline for the inhabitants. Butlers company’s plan for the community includes fracking, a natural-gas extraction method, a effort proving a financial boon to struggling communities, but such a process raises concerns about its environmental in impact. Enter Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmentalist who does all he can to thwart Butler’s business plan and Butler’s efforts to win the girl, sweet as pie schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie Dewitt).
Damon harbors and exudes all the charm necessary for an awe-shucks, former Iowan farmer’s son to woo a community desperate for economic recovery. He puts his heart into a role he helped to create, but the story quite plainly is far too simplistic and uneventful to hold interest for long. Even when Noble turns up to put an environmental wrench in the works few sparks fly. Director Gus Van Sant and the writers do push some clear political (environmental) messages and when Steve gives a impassioned rant to a school gym filled with farmers and townsfolk, an American flag providing backdrop, it is abundantly clear, but then so is another message, delivered a tad later in the films big “twist” (which I figured out fairly early on and won’t reveal here), but the filmmakers gloss over most of their points in all too cutesy characters and an inane romance.
McDormand does an enjoyable job, offering some of the films more light and witty moments. Krasinski does what he does best, but even his typically hilarious and charming goofy guy, can’t breathe fire into the sparkless script. Perhaps part of the plot problems lie in the fact that both Damon and Krasinski’s characters are both necessarily likable, but their characters get along far better than they should – their interactions hardly constitute conflict, an element necessary for drama of this sort to actually work. And infusing a love triangle challenge does little more than act as stage dressing for what should be, but is not, a substantial political commentary. In fact, at times the banter between Steve and his partner, Sue, proves far more entertaining and interesting that the schoolyard, sparring of Steve and Noble. And the more notable challenge to Steve and Sue’s proposal isn’t Noble, who shows townspeople horrific photos of dead animals as a result of fracking, but rather in the form of a local science teacher with a PhD (Hal Holbrook in another excellent performance), who raises some real questions about “selling” out the safety of McKinley citizens at the risk of community health.
All that is smart about the film falls away with an implausible and pat ending, unsalvageable by its delightful and talented cast. In fairness, I wasn’t bored watching, but I wasn’t moved either. Dramas, especially those about human safety, should move us, but the PG-13 rated Promised Land does not. From me, it earns a C-. Its stars deserve at least that.