Controversial director Oliver Stone is back — and supposedly returning to his roots with a smallish, lower-budget, darkly comic rural melodrama (which combines elements of "Red Rock West," "Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and a number of other film noir thrillers).
But just because there are no "JFK" or "Nixon" conspiracy theories here, don't think this nightmarish trip through paranoia-ville is any more mainstream in its approach than his past few films.
Stone is apparently still in love with the herky-jerky style he's been using for awhile now — most obnoxiously in "Natural Born Killers." And in "U Turn," the camera jumps around, the film stock bounces from 35mm to 16mm to 8mm, with scratches and sunbursts and audio and visual blips that are probably intended to convey an other-worldly, dreamlike quality. Instead, however, they are just annoying.
Worse, there isn't a single sympathetic character in this story of a low-rent punk (Sean Penn) who is driving to Las Vegas when he blows the radiator hose on his car, "a '64 1/2 Mustang convertible." He finds himself outside a small Arizona town called Superior, pushes the vehicle into a garage/junkyard and begins meeting one weirdo after another.
Eventually, Penn gets involved in a murder plot, though he vacillates about who the victim will be — the foxy but scary Jennifer Lopez, or her even scarier husband, an aging real-estate broker, played as a crusty coot with bad teeth by Nick Nolte.
Along the way, Penn also locks horns with a philosophizing blind Vietnam veteran with a dead seeing-eye dog (Jon Voight), the tough but alcoholic sheriff (Powers Boothe), a wacky pair of lovesick teens (Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix), a flirtatious waitress (Julie Hagerty), a dinette customer whose T-shirt reads "Eat Drink and Be Merry, for Tomorrow You May Be In Utah" (Bo Hopkins) and the always amusing Billy Bob Thornton as a good-ol'-boy auto mechanic who's not quite as dumb as he looks.
Eventually, Penn reaches his breaking point — he just wants to get out of town. But forces of nature, and a few goofballs too many, just won't let him.
Gussied up though it may be, "U Turn" offers nothing you haven't seen before. And Stone's constant hammering at the audience with style over substance is bound to alienate most moviegoers.
"U Turn" is rated R for considerable violence, gore, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drug abuse.