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Promised Land' less than promising

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Film offers heavy-handed message, not much else

It's always intriguing when a number of Hollywood's heavy hitters get together to work on something especially a pet project. Sometimes, it's a story that they have always wanted to tell. Sometimes, it's just an excuse to go on a working vacation with their buddies. And sometimes, they just want to remind you that they care about stuff.

The first one usually bears positive fruit; if nothing else, the superstar got to prove his or her mettle. The second one is hit ('Ocean's 11') or miss ('Couples Retreat'). And the third one? The third is almost never a good idea. That's when they're looking to impart a 'message.'

That's when you get movies like 'Promised Land.'

Steve Butler (Matt Damon, 'We Bought a Zoo') works for Global Crosspower Solutions, a multi-billion dollar energy corporation that is in the business of buying up land in an ongoing quest for natural gas. Butler, along with fellow Global employee Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand, 'Moonrise Kingdom'), is sent to a small Pennsylvania farming community to buy up the drilling rights to the land. The town is a key component to Global's plan, viewed as the 'first domino' once it tips, the rest will fall into place.

However, Butler runs into some unexpected opposition. The local science teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook, 'Lincoln') has some doubts and he just happens to be a former Boeing engineer with an Ivy League PhD. There's also Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, TV's 'The Office'), an environmentalist go-getter from a small outfit called Athena; he is also battling Butler at every turn.

As Butler works his way through the town, signing the residents to Global leases, he finds himself becoming invested in the people of this small town and asking himself some hard questions about whether he is doing the right thing.

On paper, 'Promised Land' looks like a heavyweight. You've got a movie star (Damon) and an up-and-comer (Krasinski) as your stars stars that just happened to also write the screenplay (with the story coming from literary star Dave Eggers). You've got an acclaimed director in Gus Van Sant and some first-rate talent in the supporting cast McDormand and Holbrook are dripping with awards; Titus Welliver ('Argo') and Rosemarie DeWitt ('Nobody Walks') are pretty darned good too.

And yet it just doesn't work.

It's partially the film's heavy-handedness; it's no fun sitting in the audience and bearing the brunt of swinging cinematic ham fists. You never go for more than five minutes without being punched in the face with the message - the thing is just so darned preachy.

Don't get me wrong; 'Promised Land' means well. And the cast really is quite engaging and amiable. But the truth is that the overall characterizations are flat; every character is painted with broad strokes and there's very little room for nuance. Add to that a frustrating ending that is unsatisfactory at best and you get a moviegoing experience with surprisingly little to recommend it especially considering the level of talent involved.

The relative environmental impact of the quest for natural gas is a question with many pros and cons. And there's no doubt that having a discussion of those pros and cons is of vital importance on both a local and national level. However, as much as it might want to be, 'Promised Land' is not the vehicle for that discussion.

2 out of 5

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