The critically acclaimed art-house film "Monster's Ball" has a wonderfully self-parodying premise: Racist prison guard Billy Bob Thornton learns to appreciate black people by sleeping with Halle Berry!
Unfortunately, "Monster's Ball" is not a comedy. The movie - complete with its suggestion that the cure for ethnic animosity is hands-on racial sensitivity training from Hollywood's most exquisite starlet - is supposed to be taken seriously. Very seriously.
In fact, the first 75 minutes are the kind of dreary anti-entertainment that fans of independent films endure so they can feel morally and culturally superior to average moviegoers, who might well walk out or doze off during "Monster's Ball." Luckily, the movie stops taking itself so somberly toward the end, allowing a little enjoyment to be salvaged from the evening.
The plot is 1950s-style Southern Gothic melodrama. Redneck Billy Bob, who plies the family trade of executioner, lives with his vicious, bigoted daddy (bullet-headed Peter Boyle of "Everybody Loves Raymond") and his weak, tolerant son (heartthrob Heath Ledger of "A Knight's Tale"). Both Billy Bob's mother and wife have apparently killed themselves in despair over their menfolk's embittered psyches.
Halle is the impoverished wife of a dignified black prisoner (zillionaire rap mogul Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs), who is scheduled for electrocution by The Man (namely, Billy Bob).
Young Heath cracks under the stress of helping Billy Bob fry Puff Daddy, thereby showing himself to be not half the man his daddy is (or, presumably, a quarter the man his granddaddy is).
Violent deaths follow. It all ends happily, however, as Billy Bob and the new widow overcome the South's centuries of hate by having lots of sex.
To mask the sub-Tennessee Williams luridness of their plot, screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos give the white characters practically no lines. While Halle emotes nonstop about the cruel injustice of life in America, Billy Bob spends much of "Monster's Ball" driving the dusty backroads, looking grim. This sensory-deprivation approach to dialogue makes the few lines the white guys do speak appear more artistically portentous than they actually are.
Young director Marc Forster displays all of the intimate knowledge of the modern South that you'd expect from somebody who grew up in a Swiss ski village. Although the story is set in Georgia, he lingers, for instance, upon shots of the muddy Mississippi River flowing through Louisiana, three states away.
While our Alpine auteur may not be all that sure where Georgia, technically speaking, is, he definitely conveys the aesthetic impression that if he ever went there, he's sure he wouldn't like it. For example, Forster shoots the fluorescent-lit interiors with the wrong film stock to give them a sickly green hue.
The big problem with "Monster's Ball," though, is the casting, not the acting, which is quite good. (Billy Bob and Halle are both being talked up for Oscars.) In movies these days, however, the acting is almost always good. Modern stars have accent coaches, research opportunities, and preparation time that earlier actors never enjoyed. Mostly, though, the competition is so fierce today. It seems as if everybody in the world wants to be a movie star now. Thus, even if you look like Halle, you still have to be more than competent to claw your way to the top.
No, the prime danger today is mismatching the actor to the role. Suspension of disbelief becomes particularly difficult with media hounds like Billy Bob (a.k.a., Mr. Angelina Jolie), Halle, and especially Puff Daddy, who may be better known for their expensively publicized private lives than for their performances.
Forster clearly realizes that having the middle-aged and non-descript-looking Billy Bob play a man who has to struggle to appreciate the famously delectable Halle's charms threatens to make a joke out of his movie. So, he lavishes on Billy Bob all the glamorous grooming and illumination tricks MGM devoted to Clark Gable. In contrast, he has Halle, a Revlon spokeswoman, wear no eyeliner, lipstick or heels. Further, Forster lights her like a driver's license picture. Despite all these indignities, though, she's still got that bone structure.
Similarly, to make Heath Ledger, the love-idol of a million teenyboppers, look like a loser, Forster grotesquely lights him from directly above or below, like a Scoutmaster holding a flashlight under his chin while telling a scary campfire story.
These desperate artifices are distracting enough, but not as much as seeing Puffy Combs as the noble prisoner. To illustrate the crushing injustice of white racism, the producers really ought to have found a more persuasive poster child than Jennifer Lopez's ex-boyfriend, whose $400 million net worth afforded him Johnnie Cochran's help in beating the guns and bribery rap from that 1999 disco shootout. Perhaps O.J. wasn't available to play the role.
Rated "R" for sex, nudity, blood, and Puff Daddy getting zapped.