This is the time for important social issues to be dealt with through the world of cinema. Prejudice and misplaced hatred are at the forefront of the current America and any film that deals with bullying of the LGBTQ communities (especially the youth) have an unfortunately relevant place in our theaters.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Joe Bell” is a film that wants to speak out against the hatred towards the LGTBQ community and say something profound. The truly sad thing about Green’s film is that it almost completely fails to achieve the emotional power to pull it off.
The story is true and the real-life tale is quite interesting. Mark Wahlberg is Joe Bell, a conservative father who, to honor his son, walks the roads of America to speak out against the bullying of the LGBTQ youth.
Joe is presented as a good man but fails as a father when it comes to accepting his son Jaiden’s homosexuality.
His wrongheaded first concern is how the community will react to the news, which is an unimaginable slap in the face to his son, who loves his father but needs to hear that he is accepted for who he is.
Connie Britton is Jaiden’s distraught mother and, unfortunately, Britton’s underwritten role is not much more than a standard “oh honey, what has happened to us?”-type when it should have been so much more.
An uneven flashback structure is used to connect the dots of Jaiden becoming the victim of relentless bullying and being unable to reach his father, a man who just does not understand how this could have happened to his family.
One of the most disheartening aspects of the uneven screenplay is that it was written by the great screenwriting team of Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. Their script is too heavy-handed and crafts its lesson of acceptance tritely. The film holds a dramatic trickery that becomes nothing more than a mere gimmick. Even though the trailer all but gives it away, I shall not divulge it.
It is unbelievable and cinematically soul-crushing to know that writers as brilliant as Ossana and McMurtry (who penned the beautiful “Brokeback Mountain”) gave this story such a messy and cut-rate treatment.
The saving grace of the film’s drama is Jaiden, played by Reid Miller with truthfulness and honesty.
The biggest issue is the performance of Mark Wahlberg as the title character. It is both the limited skills of the actor and the screenplay’s design that lets the character down.
Wahlberg can be good (“Boogie Nights,” “The Departed,” “The Fighter”), but he has never been great. He is an actor that earns a bit of respect in the ways he sometimes challenges himself on screen. It is too easy for an actor such as Mark Wahlberg to be a tough guy in action films. While he has certainly done many films of that type, he will occasionally stretch out and do different kinds of dramas and, every now and then, a comedy.
As Joe, the actor certainly tries but he just doesn’t have it in him to dig as deep as the role requires. His performance exists on only surface levels, and we are never able to get to the real heart of the man.
The screenplay is never sure whether Joe is doing this to alleviate his own guilt or if this really is a journey of self-reflection and expiation. The way Ossana and McMurtry lay it all out, it is never clear which man Joe Bell is to be. The confusion in Wahlberg’s portrayal is an unfortunate testament to their mistakes.
There are many moments in this film that are either offensively stupid or completely ridiculous.
The scene where Joe goes to a drag show just doesn’t play, existing as a much too obvious “Hail Mary” and the worst moment in the film is where Jaiden and Joe sing Lady Gaga during a heavy rain. It is the kind of scene meant to make the hearts of the audience soar but instead ends up eliciting a sour response, as it is laughable in its perceived earnestness and generic poignancy.
For all its moral high ground, the “Joe Bell” falls flat. Nothing really works and that is too bad.
Director Green fails at crafting a potent character piece by rendering the entire film shallow and, at times, offensive, even, to its subject matter.
“Joe Bell” is an important story that deserved a film where its power could speak to the masses and perhaps open some eyes and win a few hearts and minds along the way.
Alas, Green’s film does not know how to properly teach its lesson of tolerance to those who need to hear it. And in today’s America, there are many who need learn.
The memory of the real Jaiden deserved better.