A Really Bad Day

Imagine Oliver Stone making "The Wizard of Oz." The good witch would be an old Indian guy spouting wisdom; the bad witch a sadistic car mechanic with bad teeth. The wizard would be a perverted real estate dealer who marries his own daughter. Dorothy is an arrogant gangster who can't go home again; her faithful friend, the Scarecrow, betrays her; and the Munchkins are high on peyote.Oliver Stone's latest spine-crunching effort, "U-Turn", is the dark side of Oz, where evil thrives in the obliterating desert sun, and going "off-road" takes on a whole new meaning. All of Stone's tricks and trademarks are here -- paranoia, the wise Indian, punctuating edits in different film stocks, extreme close-ups, heavy-handed symbolism and a particular soulessness -- but this film has what his last several lacked: humor. And it lacks what so many of his films hammered home about: righting the world's wrongs.Because everything's wrong in Superior, Arizona, a desert town whose only road in features the sign "U Turn OK." When Bobby Cooper, sporting a bag of cash and driving a 1964 red Mustang convertible, busts a radiator hose on his way to Las Vegas to pay off a debt, he finds himself limping into this snake-bit town thinking he can get a quick car repair and go.Sean Penn does a stellar Bobby -- cocky, opportunistic, downright rude and streetwise, but not terribly smart -- whose inability to "read" the town and its inhabitants leads him into great trouble. A town comprised of eccentrics, Superior dozes not like a dog in the heat, but like a snake, waiting to strike. Bobby meets up first with the car mechanic from hell, Darrell, played by Billy Bob Thornton; then the Indian, Vietnam vet street beggar, played by Jon Voight; the seductive Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), and her grizzly husband, Jake (Nick Nolte); the sheriff (Powers Boothe); the crazed teenage girl (Claire Danes); her crazed boyfriend, Toby (Joaquin Phoenix); and the waitress, Flo (Julie Hagerty). These characters are not so much larger than life, but seem about to be launched from their bodies; even the smallest parts, including the bus station attendant played by Roseanne's Laurie Metcalf, pack a lot of power.Stone structures "U-Turn" like a legend or a myth, where the main character passes through a series of "gates" or "doorways" into a world which makes no sense. For Bobby Cooper, the signs were all there: dead coyote eviscerated by vultures, and more. He's then put through a series of "tests" by the townspeople, getting caught in a web that's ever tightening. He even gets ample warning from the beggar -- a blind Tiresias played delightfully by Voight -- who simultaneously speaks the truth and lies.At the heart of the mess is the queasy marriage between Grace and Jake McKenna, whose relations are the stuff of Greek myth. Jake used to be married to Grace's mother, and is now married to Grace, who is either his step-daughter, or, ahem, his real daughter. In Bobby they find a suitable stud to destroy each other.Grace, the town beauty with long black hair and provocative clothes, draws Bobby into her prick-tease game, and after her husband finds them clutched together, he schemes. Husband and wife devise separate plots to kill the other, perhaps knowing that Bobby is the kind who would kill. But keeping himself from "being" killed is uppermost on Bobby's mind. The Russian gangsters to whom he owes all that cash, and who snipped off two of his fingers, are on their way to Superior. And Bobby just wants out.While lovely to look at, and exuding sexuality from every pore, Jennifer Lopez doesn't reveal much character. Up against Nolte's thoroughly horrible Jake, she seems the least realized of all the town's characters, but then again, women in this movie don't fare well. They are in putative positions (emphasis on "puta"), and while Lopez as Grace is the centerpiece, Claire Danes almost steals the show with her hysterically pig-tailed teenager, and Julie Hagerty is hilarious as the high-haired Flo, the skinny waitress who wears a bra under her halter top.Though Stone throws in almost all the seven deadly sins, much bloodletting, and an eye-popping ending, the film has a relaxed pace, less frenetic than "Natural Born Killers", and with enough humor to leaven some of the cruelty. Though the case could be made that "U-Turn" is a meditation on the American condition, or on human frailties and failures, or even how scary it is to live in a desert town, irony reigns. And any film featuring songs by Peggy Lee and music by the legendary Ennio Morricone has to be intriguing. All signs point to Stone settling into a calmer dotage.

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