Political issues come and go, but message movies never change. Thanks partly to a relatively novel subject—fracking—and partly to an elliptical set-up, Gus van Sant's Promised Land, written from a story by Dave Eggers by its stars, Matt Damon and The Office's John Krasinski, varies from the norm only in fooling you for almost half an hour into thinking it actually might be up to something interesting. Too bad the movie turns into the same Ibsen for Idiots combo of a burning deck and a stacked one that was creaky when Jane Fonda was just another lonesome gal with a few New York modeling gigs to her credit.
His brow as furrowed as if he's just woken up in a voting booth with no pants on, Damon plays Steve Butler—as in "loyal servant," no doubt—who's snapping up mineral-rights leases on behalf of a corporation unsubtly named Global somewhere in generic, Great Recession-ravaged Heartland, U.S.A. The setting's lack of specificity is your first hint that flyover country will go on looking like flyover country to well-meaning Hollywoodites even from a minivan. When you're telling a story about the potential destruction of a community, providing some sense of said community's distinctive crotchets and idiosyncrasies might be nice, but Promised Land's sense of place is mired at sitcom level. Figuring out that a town like this probably has a high-school basketball team of some sort is about as sharp as the movie's observational gifts get.
Still, the early sequences as Butler learns his way around Anyville —insinuating himself into the locals' good graces by participating in a drinking game at what appears to be the only bar in town, vaguely taking up with Rosemary De Witt as Alice, an implausibly chic schoolteacher—do have some vitality. Van Sant is often happiest when he's in no hurry to get to the point, and Frances McDormand brings some genuine flavor and individuality to her talking-point part as Butler's frankly mercenary ("It's just a job") sidekick. I'm not sure there's another actress around with comparable expertise at adding a compassionate pound of flesh to stick figures.
Then, as in a Nativity play, everybody else starts to tiresomely shuffle toward incarnating their representative debate roles. We get the yokel who's fatuously thrilled about the chance to make a killing; we get the Rueful Guy whose family has owned his land for generations. The ringer in the bunch is Hal Holbrook—no, I wouldn't blame you if you just quit reading right there—as a high-school science prof who's all up to speed on fracking's adverse consequences and challenges Butler at town meetings. Naturally, it's not enough that he's informed and saintly; he's got to be a world-renowned academic who's teaching at Anyville High in his sunset years for the fun of it. So much for trusting the common people to figure things out unassisted, and what I'd give by now to see Holbrook play an illiterate, vicious old loon who eats kittens and brags about it is beyond describing.
Butler's foil is Krasinski as Dustin Noble, who turns up to lobby against Global on behalf of an environmental outfit called Athena. Soon, he's not only making better time with Alice the schoolteacher than Damon did, but outdoing him at going native in The Only Bar in Town. If Krasinski seems to have wrong-headedly prepped for the role by watching a truckload of slasher movies, it turns out there's an explanation for that—and yet the climactic big reveal about Dustin's true agenda in Anyville isn't at all convincing. Damon's performance is more adept, but not really by that much; when you recall that this dreary crisis-of-conscience role is one he wrote for himself—and then compare it to his imaginative, quiddity-filled take on Middle American corporate foibles in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant—you realize, once again, that earnestness affects even good actors the way chloroform affects butterflies.
What, I wonder, is the purpose of didactic movies like Promised Land? The unconverted obviously won't go, and the converted won't learn anything they don't know—except, maybe, a few tidbits confirming their suspicion that Hollywood doesn't know enough about "ordinary" Americans to be trustworthy even when agitating on their behalf. The point of projects like this one can't be merely to gratify the filmmakers' sense of virtue, can it? Unfortunately, of course it can. If you'll forgive me for paraphrasing Megyn Kelly, they're just math celebrities do as liberals to make themselves feel better.