Damon’s No-Fracking ‘Promised Land,’ Doting Midler: Film

'Promised Land'
Rosemarie DeWitt and Matt Damon in "Promised Land." Other stars in the cast include Frances McDormand, Benjamin Sheeler and Hal Holbrook. Photographer: Scott Green/Focus Features via Bloomberg

When the corporate, drill-happy shills of Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” arrive in small town Pennsylvania, they shop for local anti-finery from a highway store that sells guns, guitars and flannel shirts.

Van Sant’s amiable film pulls a similar trick, dumbing down its environmental message in ready-to-wear screenplay gimmickry.

Based on a story by Dave Eggers developed by screenwriters (and stars) Matt Damon and John Krasinski, “Promised Land” has the ever-likeable Damon playing Steve Butler, a good-hearted operative for a natural-gas conglomerate that buys drilling rights from put-upon farmers.

Along with just-doing-her-job sales partner Sue Thomason (the dependable Frances McDormand), former farm boy Butler blows into town in a beat-up rented truck (the better to blend), promising big money for all.

Expecting a warm welcome (Butler’s naivete comes and goes as the script demands), the two frackers get their first hint of resistance when a retired, skeptical science teacher with Googling know-how (Hal Holbrook) rallies the locals.

Roadblock No. 2 arrives with the god-awful name Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a grass-roots activist who’s too do-good to be true.

Fracking, Bad

In a scene transparently designed to educate audiences, Noble demonstrates fracking’s badness to a class of awestruck school kids.

Is he really going to toss their pet turtle into the burning scale-model farm?

And does this school have any safety guidelines?

Krasinski and Damon’s script amps up the macho competition with a romantic rivalry for local schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt). She’s smart, appealing and might as well come equipped with a manhood-measuring ruler.

As schematic as it is, “Promised Land,” like the Van Sant/Damon collaboration “Good Will Hunting,” benefits from the tremendous appeal of its cast.

And only one actor overplays the charm, tipping off a twist that surprises merely in its implausibility and clunky execution.

Mentally replay “Promised Land” in light of the development and you’ll find all the cracks in its foundation.

“Promised Land,” from Focus Features, is playing in New York and Los Angeles and opens across the U.S. January 4. Rating: ** 1/2 (Evans)

‘Parental Guidance’

A sentimental comedy directed by Andy Fickman, “Parental Guidance” features Bette Midler and Billy Crystal as babysitting grandparents. Midler’s opening line -- “Oh! My sciatica!” -- suggests the kind of humor it has in store.

They’re subbing for their daughter (Marisa Tomei) and son-in-law (Tom Everett Scott), yuppie control freaks who have turned their three children into neurotic basket cases.

Once those two are out of the way, the grandparents load the kids with (forbidden) sugar, teach them to play kick-the-can and put makeup on their granddaughter (not their youngest grandson, despite a hint that he’s a budding transvestite).

The children, wary at first, blossom.

Surprisingly, it’s not entirely painful. The child actors have some charm, and Midler and Crystal soldier cheerfully through the pee-pee and poo-poo jokes.

There’s some pleasure in watching Crystal labor to give his one-liners some zip, and more in seeing Midler shrug, just shrug, and steal a scene.

Many of us have been waiting for decades -- since the heyday of the Divine Miss M -- to see her in a role that does justice to her comic genius. The wait continues.

“Parental Guidance,” from 20th Century Fox, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ** (Seligman)

Portuguese ‘Tabu’

The first half of “Tabu,” a Portuguese art film directed by Miguel Gomes, centers on Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a good soul who’s concerned about her neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), a bitter and luckless old woman who won’t stay out of the casino.

The second half backtracks to colonial Africa decades earlier, relating the story of a mad passionate affair between the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) and a Genoese roue name Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta).

This part is narrated by the elderly Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo). Peculiarly, as in a silent film, the actors’ lips move soundlessly -- though the ambient sounds of animals and water are rendered with hyperreal clarity.

The movie is shot entirely in black and white, so elegantly that at times I found it hard to concentrate on the story (and especially the subtitles) when all I wanted was to luxuriate in the gorgeously textured compositions.

Is the romance plot well worn, or is it a comment on well-worn old romance plots? The pace is stately, allowing us plenty of time to reflect.

“Tabu,” from Adopt Films, is playing in New York. Rating: *** (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include New York weekend and Jeremy Gerard on movies.

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