Combustible Celluloid
Get the Poster
Own it:
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Brian Cox, Paul Franklin Dano, Billy Kay, Bruce Altman, James Costa, Walter Masterson
Written by: Michael Cuesta, Gerald Cuesta, Stephen M. Ryder
Directed by: Michael Cuesta
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for some explicit sexual content
Running Time: 97
Date: 01/20/2001

L.I.E. (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Human Prey

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In Scrooged (1988), Bill Murray tries to convince David Johansen that he had a wonderful childhood. Once, he says, he even won the big Little League game and his teammates carried him on their shoulders. Johansen, as the Ghost of Christmas Past, counters that that wasn't him... that was a TV show he once watched.

That's how most of today's "coming of age" films feel to me. These storytellers want to dream of their childhood, but can't remember anything that feels more real than clicking their remote. For the most part, the new film L.I.E. feels like that. But suddenly, right in the center, it explodes with a powerful life force in the form of actor Brian Cox. He alone saves the film and makes it worth seeing.

L.I.E. begins with a young teenager named Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) experimenting with suicide by teetering on the railing of a Long Island Expressway overpass. He ruminates about how many lives have been taken on the Expressway, including movie director Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men) and his own mother.

Howie lives with his rich father (Bruce Altman) who doesn't know how to relate to his son and instead spends his time banging his sexy young girlfriend. Howie hangs out with kids even more disturbed than himself, led by Billy (Gary Terrio) a young hustler who robs houses and turns tricks. Through Billy, Howie meets Big John Harrigan (Cox), a chicken hawk who preys on young boys.

The movie's central scene comes when Harrigan gets Howie in his living room and in his clutches. (Howie is trying to return a gun that Billy stole from Harrigan's basement.) Harrigan begins to put his well-practiced moves on Howie, turning on a porno tape, going into his spiel. But halfway through, the phone rings and Harrigan's mother begins talking about his hemorrhoids on his answering machine, breaking the spell. It's an astonishing scene and it suddenly blindsides both man and boy, taking them into a whole different kind of relationship more human than cliché.

In their scenes together Cox and Dano really click, playing off that crooked father-son, hunter-prey dynamic extremely well. And though Cox is the real standout here (he deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance), Dano more than matches him.

Unfortunately when the film goes off to tell Howie's story, L.I.E. falls back on the conventional moods and attitudes that such movies use to depict suburban ennui, and especially suburban ennui in New York. It was during these scenes that I remembered Bill Murray's Little League story. It just doesn't feel real.

Likewise, Cox's scenes without Dano fall flat, thanks to a poorly-written character named Scott (Walter Masterson), an aging boy-toy who continues to hang around Harrigan long after his usefulness has run out. Scott's character arc is pretty easy to detect from the first moment he appears onscreen, and so it goes without much of a surprise.

L.I.E is the first feature by writer/director Michael Cuesta (co-written by brother Gerald Cuesta and Stephen M. Ryder). He's proudly traveling the audacious route, trying to shock with his rather middleweight film, and going out to theaters with the dreaded NC-17 rating. Ironically, his strengths clearly run to the gentle side, as seen through the tender relationship shared by Harrigan and Howie. And so, audiences who would most appreciate the film probably won't even see it, and audiences expecting a tough, gritty story will be disappointed.

Movies Unlimtied