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The Dumpuary Movie Club: Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad

With few exceptions, such as Friday’s wide release of Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty, the two-month period between the New Year and the Oscars is Hollywood’s wasteland, a long stretch of bad cinematic road where it casts out its unloved misfires, its low-achieving genre fare, and, occasionally, its hidden, wolf-punching gems. We call this time “Dumpuary,” and from now until the Academy’s final statuette is handed out, our Dumpuary Movie Club will shine a light on the soon-to-be-forgotten films cruelly languishing in the shadow of awards season. This week: Gangster Squad.

Mark Lisanti: Let’s start at the beginning. Or maybe the end. What did we just see? Because I honestly don’t know. Was it The Untouchables? Was it Dick Tracy? Was it Sin City with 1929 gangsters and a full color palette? It’s probably a little unfair to come right out of the gate trying to compare it to other things, but it seemed to jam its arm elbow-deep into that grab bag of influences and run with whatever it pulled out before any given scene. It wasn’t bad enough to be bad-fun, and it wasn’t good enough to be good-fun. It was a confusing thing that happened to a couple dozen people in a theater in downtown L.A. on an early Friday afternoon.

I do know this: It began with a guy getting ripped in half and eaten by coyotes — you can do a lot worse than having your movie open with a guy getting ripped in half and devoured by coyotes — and it ended with Josh Brolin chucking his badge into the Pacific. In between, Giovanni Ribisi pointed at a rocket, Nick Nolte became the first actor in Hollywood history to choke to death on his own voice, and a bulldog wore a fedora. So let’s talk this through. Maybe we’ll get it figured out before someone hits publish on this thing.

Emily Yoshida: I predicted before going in that Gangster Squad would pretty much look and feel like a fake film from an Entourage or Gossip Girl plotline, and it turns out I was not wrong about this. The whole thing never quite feels like an actual creative endeavor that anybody worked on or thought about. It belongs to the same genre as Cold Mountain or Bobby (your yearly reminder: Bobby was a film that was made) — the celebrity dress-up party film. I guess I can imagine the allure for the cast: Show up on set, get handed a pack of herbal cigarettes, and get told to say funny-sounding things like “What’s your racket, handsome?” like a bad mystery dinner party with a paycheck at the end.

I feel it’s important to note that there were not one, but two jokes at the expense of the city of Burbank (Anthony Mackie: “I always knew I would die in Burbank”), which I chuckled at despite myself the first time, and by the second time wondered if it was perhaps some sort of “inside” “joke” about a botched prop-house run during pre-production. Which only added to the sensation that I was intruding on something that was only supposed to be seen by its creators, like a summer camp talent-show skit or something. And I’m even someone who can potentially sympathize — who hasn’t seen her life flash before her eyes in the Burbank Ikea parking garage, amirite? #LOLsAngeles

Alex Pappademas: Looking through my notes on this movie; I seem to have stopped writing things down after “I always knew I’d die in Burbank,” except for “crotchful of acid” and “Gosling puts fedora on dog!!!!!!” But yeah,
Emily — aside from Sean Penn (as Mickey Cohen, putting in some truly gasket-blowing neo–Big Boy Caprice work behind his Constable Odo prosthesis and saying things like “Now my whole crop of cunt is ruined”), seldom have so many so well known gotten together to try so not-hard. And pretty much everybody’s so likable — from Mackie to Brolin to Michael Peña to Robert Patrick in the “And William Petersen as Pat Garrett” mustache — that you totally get why they all wanted to hang out together and be vintage-suit bros for a month or two.

Should we be at all worried about the ease with which Ryan Gosling skates through this one? It’s like he’s reminding us that at any moment he could give up being a contrarian weirdo and coast through the rest of his career on charm alone, so we should enjoy his Terrence Malick movies while he’s still making them. Hey, girl — I heard you like movie stars, so I made you this stylish James Ellroy pastiche even though it’s beneath me. That said, this movie has Gosling and Emma Stone falling in love again, just like they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love. They almost redeemed that movie in a few quick scenes; that doesn’t happen here, but putting them back together in cool ’40s outfits (and in bed at the Garden of Allah apartment house, where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to live) is some truly and excellently bald-faced fan service.

Sean Fennessey: While I agree that this is the shiniest nickel-plated revolver loaded with blanks that I have seen in some time, I am unwilling to write off the Gosling Things™ happening here as “coasting.” Is talking like Edward G. Robinson if he were a cartoon cat “coasting”? Is calling Stone — decked head-to-heel in red — a “tah-matah” “coasting”? Is that perfectly executed side part “coasting”? C’mon, Alex — even if Gosling’s at half-mast, he’s still a waving flag of aggressive weirdo charm.

The rest of this movie, yeesh, it could stand to be a lot worse. Josh Brolin may have been paid in Ambien — he hardly opens his eyes, he’s so checked out. Mackie’s pretty chipper (Burbank, bro!), and I enjoyed Peña’s reprisal of Dennis from Observe and Report. There’s also a fine cameo-ish role for Jon Polito, the king of the clammy gangster type. But it’s also violent in that not-fun or transgressive way — there are shots of spinning golden shell casings crashing to the linoleum in slo-mo; brain matter is seen floating in a pool; a veiny, sweaty Penn thumps a heavy bag, his muscled flesh flapping like a bag full of eels. This movie is pretty and loud and gross and often makes little sense. (Someone needs to explain the whole Cohen-gets-the-jump-on-the–Gangster Squad part to me.) Mays, you cackled a few times. Was it Giovanni Ribisi’s glasses?

Giovanni Ribisi

Robert Mays: The glasses helped, Sean, but they were more cackles of glee over Giovanni portraying a redeemable human. I can’t remember the last time I saw Giovanni Ribisi in a movie and didn’t want to take a shower. He’s either making Nic Cage steal cars, or kidnapping Mark Wahlberg’s kids, or trying to kill all the blue people in Avatar, or somehow being creepier than a talking teddy bear. Here, he not only gets to point to a rocket, he gets to drop the “What makes us different than them?” bomb on a hell-bent Josh Brolin.

It would’ve been my favorite obligatory moment of moral clarity if it weren’t for Gosling and Brolin swilling from a bottle of whiskey and talking about war by the light of the bug zapper behind a bullet-riddled house. There are few things I enjoy more than the shit-gets-real-on-a-porch scene, and if it weren’t for Vin and Paul getting deep on fatherhood in Fast Five, this would’ve been the best one in a while.

Pappademas: Technically, I said Gosling was skating while suggesting the possibility of future coasting, but I agree, that’s an imprecise description of what he’s doing here. Gosling does not seem to be paying for a pool with this movie; he finds room to make idiosyncratic Goslingesque choices, like when he does the drunk-walk to the door of Slapsy Maxie’s like it’s the run-up to a dance number. And yes, he looks amazing; taking tailoring cues from the guy on the Clubman Talc bottle is seldom a bad move. But he’s still doodling private jokes in the margins of a piece of bonehead LAPD fan fiction. Being the best thing about bad movies is a dangerous comfort zone for an actor; here be Captain Jack Sparrow territory, y’know?

Mays: While I also couldn’t watch Gosling without picturing him as Whiskers from The Last Action Hero, what stuck with me is the scene in the breakfast nook with Emma. Is it in Gosling’s contract that in at least one scene he has to be wearing a chain and a deep-V? Aside from Stone’s hair, that could’ve been from any Gosling movie of the past five years. He has a forearm tattoo, for fuck’s sake. (Yes, I’m just bitter because he’s still cool while the walls of this shitshow are burning around him.)

Yoshida: To be fair, “’40s gangster pastiche” is pretty much directly in Gosling’s wheelhouse; he gets to utilize his ambiguous Brooklyn-by-way-of-Toronto purr, as well as pull off the rarest of tweebro crossover feats: rock suspenders, a drink with an umbrella in it, and a shotgun, all in the same film and all convincingly.

Ryan Gosling

Pappademas: Obviously we don’t have anything to worry about just yet, since Zero Dark Thirty and (this had to hurt a little) Marlon Wayans’s A Haunted House both clobbered Gangster Squad at the box office this weekend; Gosling will probably not be asked to reprise the role of Jerry Wooters in G2NGSTER SQ2D.

Proposed: The real problem with this movie is that it does not end with an expository rap song about why criminals should beware of the Gangster Squad.

Lisanti: I told you not to leave before the closing credits finished — there was a good three-minute tag of the entire cast lip-synching to “Call Me Maybe,” where Brolin finally came alive as he was hoisted atop Robert Patrick’s shoulders to engage in a playful (but still potentially fatal) chicken fight against a fearsome Penn/Peña combo in the very Garden of Allah pool where an adjunct Squadder had perished just half an hour earlier. (A sunken-cheeked Ribisi attempting to inflate a pair of water wings in preparation for the next bout might be the most indelible image of the film. And yes, I’m counting the part where the unlucky guy at the beginning got ripped in half, spilling 30 pounds of steaming coyote kibble out of his shredded torso.) You can second-guess a lot of things about the way it all turned out, but not the commitment each of the baby-oil-slathered no-necks at Mickey Cohen’s manicure-and-rubdown movie party brought to his Carly Rae verse. Holt McCallany has the dub-voice of an angel.

But I digress, as much fun as it is to play fantasy “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” In fairness, at some point we need to at least mention the circumstances by which Gangster Squad wound up with its early January release date: It originally included a scene involving a bloody shootout at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which was pulled and re-shot immediately following July’s tragedy at Aurora, necessitating a move from its intended September 2012 release date. So at some point in its development, Squad had bigger ambitions than being an also-ran to Zero Dark Thirty‘s Oscar-boosted nationwide debut and feeling like the Dumpuary opening act for The Last Stand, Parker, and Bullet to the Head. This wasn’t supposed to be The Expendables: 1949. And yet that’s how it feels now, fairly or (perhaps very) unfairly.

Yoshida: At first I figured that the delayed release was the best thing that could have happened to Gangster Squad (what would have been the Oscar-season pitch, “It’s like The Artist with tommy guns”?), but it’s clearly not built to withstand the one-two Stallone-Schwarzenegger Dumpuary punch, no matter how many emotionally loaded bear claws Gosling and Detective Linden indulge in. Ultimately, as unsubtle as the film is, it never pushes hard enough stylistically to make up for the emptiness of the script — the ultraviolence, while admirably gross, comes in fits and starts; the production design and music choices are far too safe to put it in over-the-top Baz Luhrmann territory. Which, by the way — as far as overbaked celebrity-filled period pieces go, The Great Gatsby is going to eat Gangster Squad for hungover brunch, washed down with a comically large prop bottle of Moët and a chaser of overused Frank Ocean samples.

Fennessey: About that script: Written by former LAPD cop Will Beall, it hit the Black List in 2009 and became one of those hot properties in Hollywood that everyone wants to make a baby with. (Beall has since been tapped to write the Justice League movie, the Lethal Weapon reboot, and a Logan’s Run remake. Not bad for a guy who was most recently a story editor on Castle.) And there are a lot of screenwriterly turns of phrase throughout. You can see how reading it would be more enjoyable than most, what with all that old-timey “‘Don’t go’ — ‘Don’t let me'” poetical interplay. Of course, it almost never works. It’s too affected. As Mark mentioned, we’ve seen it too many times (lately, I’ve been referring to this movie as The Touchables). The person I really feel for is director Ruben Fleischer, a guy who seems genuinely talented. He made the terrific Zombieland and then the not-terrific 30 Minutes or Less, passing on a chance to make Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol in the process. It’s hard to believe the guy responsible for this, could also give us something this humorless. The lesson, as always: more Gosling, less all of the other stuff.