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Make a 'U-Turn' at the theater entrance

U-turn October 11, 1997
Web posted at: 7:18 p.m. EDT (2318 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Back in the good old days, when movies were still generally considered to be an art form as opposed to an intricate moneymaking scam, the argument of form vs. content was sometimes debated.

How much style was too much style? Was flash a viable alternative to emotional or (gulp!) intellectual substance? It's a real shame that most folks can only roll their eyes at these concepts nowadays, but maybe we ought to start speaking up. Blind acceptance, as far as the movie industry is concerned, is the same thing as asking for it.

I thought about this when, minutes after seeing Oliver Stone's new movie, "U-Turn," I noticed an ad in the newspaper in which a fellow critic trumpeted the film as "genius."

Now, everybody is entitled to their opinion, and critics (happily) are paid for it, but I'm wondering where this person bought her dictionary. I looked "genius" up in my Webster's New World, and it didn't say anything about "elaborately stupid," which is exactly what "U-Turn" is.

The film (a crime story in the new-and-abused Tarantino genre) is a collection of footage, the main goal of which is to tirelessly point out Stone's supposedly mad gift.

Stone takes a wrong turn

I am not an unwavering Stone-hater, but I'm certainly a wavering Stone-liker.

I think there's a lot to be said for long stretches of "Platoon," "Salvador," "Talk Radio," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "JFK." But even those films contain ludicrous moments of overstatement and thoroughly unnecessary visual pyrotechnics.

It worked fine in "JFK" because the story is stone-cold crazy, but stuff like "Natural Born Killers" and -- the truly laughable -- "The Doors" (where Stone throws in the psychedelically painted kitchen sink after having it blessed by an Indian shaman), is where the man's heart now lies, and it's starting to look like there's no turning back.

I'll give you a plot synopsis of "U-Turn," but there's really no need. Telling a story is the last thing on Stone's mind.

They're all crazy, but Sean Penn shines

Sean Penn (just about the only conceivable reason to see the movie) plays Bobby, a former tennis pro who's on his way to Las Vegas to pay back some money that he owes a generic bad guy. The bad guy recently clipped a couple of fingers from Bobby's right hand due to his inability to pay his debt on time.

On the road to Vegas, the car's radiator hose bursts, so Bobby finds himself stranded in the "town" of Superior, Arizona. There ain't much there, to say the least. That's okay, though, because the locals are bizarre enough to supply their own entertainment.

The cast of characters is inspiring in its emotional richness.

There's a hillbilly mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton), who is crazy. There's a hot-tamale Apache woman (Jennifer Lopez), who is crazy. There's her jealous, buck-toothed husband/father (Nick Nolte), who is crazy. There's a blind, half-Indian beggar (John Voight), who is crazy. There's also Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Julie Hagerty and Powers Boothe. Crazy, crazy, crazy -- and relatively sane. Hours of research must've gone into that last one.

Nolte tries to get Penn to kill Lopez. Penn falls for Lopez. Lopez tries to get Penn to kill Nolte. Everyone who approaches Penn winds up punching him in the face. The End.

No taste, no focus, no good sense

From the minute this thing starts, Stone is hyperventilating. The credit sequence alone is exhausting in its over-conception.

Start off with Ralph Steadman-like titles that blur and jump around the screen. Add an animal carcass being nauseatingly picked apart by vultures. Throw in three different film stocks. How about some double exposures? Let Penn continually tune his car stereo so that we get snippets of 10 or 12 different songs (Gee, I wonder which station in the middle of the Arizona desert is playing Charles Mingus.)

Let Penn run over an animal. Show it splattered all over the road. Now piece this all together with 100 or so cuts in the space of roughly three minutes. I remember reading something that said "JFK" should get an award for Most Editing. Well, "U-Turn" should be honored for having the most everything, except, of course, taste, focus and good sense. Considering the pace, you'd think it was directed by a rattled, Oscar-winning Chihuahua.

Heavy on overkill

Don't get the impression that this technique is used only in the opening credits. Oh, no-no-no. Stone lays it on practically nonstop for the next two hours.

Nolte, in particular, gets several gratuitous near-scientific close-ups of his epidermis. Here we are trying to listen to a plot to kill a man's wife, and suddenly the movie turns into "Journey into the Secret World of Nick Nolte's Pores."

I pray to God that Stone doesn't get his hands on one of those cameras that doctors stick down people's throats. He's sure to be riveted by Kevin Costner's mucus. Oh, yeah! I should also mention Ennio Morricone's mind-boggling score, which sounds like a symphonic re-imagining of the theme from "Green Acres."

I don't know exactly what's going on here, but let's put it this way: If caffeine is responsible, Maxwell House should send Stone to a clinic.

"U-Turn" is violent, bloody and features bad language, an open-air sex scene and vultures pulling entrails out of fresh roadkill. Rated R. 125 minutes.


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