Film review: United States of Leland, The

Published: Friday, June 10 2005 8:17 p.m. MDT

Ryan Gosling and Jena Malone star in 'The United States of Leland,' which is about a California teen awaiting trial for a fatal stabbing.

Lorey Sebastian, Paramount Classics

Enlarge photo»

A talented cast wanders through "The United States of Leland" as if each is in a daze, or sleepwalking.

The monotone line readings and numb performances are meant to suggest the oppressive amount of sadness and emotional distancing the characters are feeling. But knowing that doesn't make this depressingly grim drama any easier to watch.

If anything it makes the film seem slower and longer than it actually is. And it gives the audience time to notice the many gaping holes in the plot, making its logical inconsistencies even more glaring. For a film that requires a suspension of disbelief, that's a huge problem.

The film's title refers to Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling), a California teen who's accused of a horrible crime: the fatal stabbing of a mentally disabled fellow student (Michael Welch). While he waits for his trial, Leland is sent to a juvenile detention center, where he meets Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle), a teacher and would-be novelist who tries to get the teen to tell his side of the story. (Pearl actually wants material to write the Great American Novel.)

In the meantime, the families involved are trying to cope with their respective losses. The wild cards are Leland's estranged novelist father (Kevin Spacey) and the dead boy's sister (Jena Malone), who also happens to be Leland's ex-girlfriend.

Unfortunately for filmmaker Matthew Ryan Hoge, this material is neither shocking nor as thought-provoking as he thinks it is. It's just dull. And the performances are one of the biggest reasons. Up-and-comer Gosling has been electric in other films (especially "The Believer"), but even he looks bored. And usually watchable veterans Cheadle, Spacey and Lena Olin are left adrift by the script and director, which only underscores the tedium.

"The United States of Leland" is rated R for frequent use of strong sexual profanity (as well as some crude sex talk), violence (a beating and a pair of stabbings), drug content (heroin use and possession) and brief gore. Running time: 103 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com