When a troubled teen commits murder and straight off identifies his motivation by saying, “Because of all the sadness,” you know subtlety and veracity are not priorities. Wearing its earnestness and studied sensitivity on its sleeve with self-righteous conviction, Matthew Ryan Hoge’s “The United States of Leland” is as maudlin and monotone as the whiny alt-rock that drenches its overly articulated emotional disclosures. Name cast and producer Kevin Spacey’s clout will ensure a theatrical presence for this examination of the aftermath of senseless violence, but ultimately, the Paramount Classics Sundance pickup will sit better on television.
Recounted in voiceover readings from the journal kept by Leland (Ryan Gosling) in the juvenile correctional facility where he’s being held, the drama digs into the reasons behind the adolescent’s stabbing of a young retarded boy and its impact on his own family and that of the victim. Chief conduit for the probe is Pearl (Don Cheadle), a teacher at the prison and a frustrated writer, whose motives mix concern with the smell of a good book idea.
As Pearl struggles to penetrate Leland’s detachment, he peels back layers to reveal the boy’s remote relationship with his expatriate father (Spacey), a celebrated novelist and aloof intellectual who channels his emotions into his books. His damaged mother (Lena Olin) also has failed to break through her son’s melancholy shell. There’s more of a connection with Leland’s junky ex-girlfriend Becky (Jena Malone), the victim’s sister. But her decision to push him away and get back together with her drug-dealer lover contributed to Leland’s alienation.
As for the murdered boy’s family, grief leaves his parents (Martin Donovan, Ann Magnuson) adrift and helpless and destabilizes the long-term relationship between Becky’s sister Julie (Michelle Williams) and her devoted boyfriend Allen (Chris Klein).
While pic deserves credit for keeping any falsely consolatory note out of its protracted conclusion, Hoge’s screenplay trudges through its emotional agenda with leaden feet, spelling out its points via characters too readily able to access their emotional issues. Even the more reticent, like the victim’s parents, seem programmed like psychological case studies: The boy’s well-meaning but ineffectual father finally explodes in anger that triggers his brittle wife to release her feelings.
Laboring against characters that spout artificial, platitudinous dialogue, the cast invites little sympathy. Gosling’s one-note, blankly disturbed act has none of the magnetic edge of his breakthrough work in “The Believer,” while the intriguing ambiguity of Cheadle’s character could have been far more interestingly explored.
Malone comes closest to creating a silently hurting, flesh-and-blood character, while Klein’s attempt to play down his physicality in a sensitive, vulnerable role is undermined by scripting that telegraphs his character’s rash course of action a half-hour early. Spacey plays the kind of coldly clever type he’s played countless times before, to diminishing returns.
Hoge shows no particular directorial style, bringing a bland, anonymous look to the generic Southern California suburban locations.