The opening sequence in The Place Beyond the Pines, a generational triptych that drowns in its own stylized ambition, pretty much sums up the whole windy affair. It’s a beautifully crafted tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling, his natural-born charisma further amped up by dyed blond hair and a well-inked torso, with his back to the camera striding across the grounds of a raucous carnival en route to the big top. There, before an adoring crowd, he mounts a motorcycle and drives it inside a giant metal sphere, whose spinning circles prove conclusively that, you know, what goes around comes around. Sequence over, the movie begins but the verdict is already in: Good look, scant point.
Much like his character in Drive, Gosling’s Luke is a self-contained heartthrob (lest you doubt it, the tattoo around his neck reads, “HEARTTHROB”) with a love of speed, a trail of women and a soft spot for children. Those latter two propensities combine in Romina (Eva Mendes) who, after a fling when the carnival last came to town, gave birth to a son. Made aware of his progeny, a suddenly dew-eyed Luke quits his sphere-spinning gig and vows to become a good provider. Of course, since the hardscrabble burg is Schenectady, N.Y. (Iroquois for “The Place Beyond the Pines”), honest work is hard to find. Happily, he meets a back-alley mechanic with a side line: “We could rob a bank. As long as you don’t do it too many times, it’s fine.”
Well, the rebel has a cause. Back when Gosling last teamed with director Derek Cianfrance in Blue Valentine, their canvas was intimate and rooted in credibly detailed emotion. Here, it’s expansive and the emotions, although charged, seem vague and unanchored – like the high Luke feels after his first successful heist, or the corresponding low when Romina refuses the purloined cash. Predictably, he soon tumbles down the path of “too many times,” until the last time sees him cornered by a cop who closes in and ….
On to Part Two of the triptych, where one heartthrob makes room for another. Say hello to Bradley Cooper – Avery the rookie cop. A reluctant hero, he has a young son of his own, a lingering case of guilt, and a conscience, which serves him well when the second chapter suddenly morphs into Serpico.
Yes, his fellow officers (led by Ray Liotta in stereotypically venal form) are a corrupt bunch, putting the good apple in the usual quandary between doing the right thing and alienating himself from the rotten barrel. Once again, Cianfrance handles the individual scenes with menacing aplomb but, once again, the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. So our patience is getting tried even as the story jumps to “15 Years Later” and ….
On to Part Three, where, in the goes around/comes around spirit of things, the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Avery is a rising politician now, divorced and somewhat estranged from his teenage boy AJ (Emory Cohen). Meanwhile, Jason (Dane DeHaan) has grown up unaware of his biological, bank-robbing daddy. At the local high school, the kids meet by accident and then hover by design, leaving them to connect the dots on their inherited past. As actors, Cohen and DeHaan do much the same: Both are talented yet, doubtless encouraged by Cianfrance, both are guilty of too vigorously channelling their inner James Dean.
Now the generational saga switches again into a coming-of-age tale which, as time goes by (and by, nearly 21/2-hours worth), charts a course East of Eden towards a rather hastily trumped-up ending. There, circles once vicious are all smoothed out like a well-tuned motorcycle – the kind with a flashy paint job, but running on empty.