Macho, blowhard intellectualism — once the province of giants like Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer — is petering out these days with sad spectacles like Sean Penn writing about his penis in an interview with a Mexican drug lord. Dorchester's own William Monahan, who penned the blessedly profane screenplay for Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," appears to be at once both practitioner and critic of this boozy, bare-knuckle literary tradition.
His work is blustery, awash in highfalutin references and lowbrow humor, but I'm pretty sure he's kidding at least half the time. Monahan's most recent picture, 2014's ill-advised remake of scholarly degenerate James Toback's 1974 "The Gambler" boasted the unintentionally hilarious sight of Mark Wahlberg as a college professor, strutting around a lecture hall bellowing lines from Camus' "The Stranger" that he appeared to have learned phonetically. Director Rupert Wyatt had no discernible point of view on the volatile script, leaving the end result a rather queasily triumphalist exercise in Marky Mark shouting insults at minorities.
Perhaps seeking to avoid such messy misinterpretations, Monahan stepped into the director's chair himself for "Mojave" — an elliptical and at times preposterously entertaining load of hooey that both sends up and embraces every chest-beating trope in that old alpha "He-Man of letters" tradition. Best way I can describe it is to say "Mojave" is probably what Mailer's "Tough Guys Don't Dance" might've been like, if only "Tough Guys Don't Dance" hadn't been one of the worst movies ever made. ("Mojave" is playing at the Brattle Theatre Friday through Monday and it is also available to rent or buy.
Garrett Hedlund stars as Thomas, an unbearably pretentious Hollywood movie star — but what he really wants to do is direct. The hair, the muttering and the non-stop cigarettes are presumably designed to remind us of Penn, even if Hedlund sometimes seems to be channelling "Kalifornia"-era Brad Pitt. He's having trouble editing his dream project, an arthouse farrago produced by a former Cape Cod coke dealer who wants to be a mogul (Wahlberg again, here having a ball). Searching for inspiration, the would-be auteur shuts off his cell phone and heads for the desert.
Thomas gets more than he bargained for when a long-haired, gold-toothed desert rat (Oscar Isaac) happens upon his campsite. Toting a rifle and a penchant for philosophical proclamations, this stranger kicks off a Kazantzakian fireside chat, suggesting the devil could have been just another side of Jesus' personality. Or maybe, the stranger infers, he might very well be the devil himself?
Turns out he's not the devil, but just a regular old serial killer, albeit one with an IQ he claims is comparable to that of John Stuart Mill. After a prolonged scuffle across dunes and caves, our Hollywood hotshot accidentally shoots a highway patrolman dead. Isaac's secret sharer witnesses the deed and follows our protagonist back to La La Land, infiltrating Thomas' life and haunting him like an apparition — either a physical manifestation of his guilt, or just a loudmouth bookworm who could really stand to give the notable quotables a rest once in awhile.
"Mojave" is sometimes an extremely funny movie, no small thanks to a joyful, hambone performance from Isaac as the desert tormenter turned Beverly Hills slickster. Rasping out his lines in a sandpaper growl while calling everybody "brother," the rising star who's always being compared to a young Pacino here sinks his teeth into a late-period Al homage, a la "The Devil's Advocate." Walton Goggins drolly deadpans as Thomas' fey attorney, always appearing about half-conscious and one more martini away from oblivion. Wahlberg hasn't been so much fun in ages, prancing around like a wannabe big shot, babbling on and on about hookers and Chinese food.
In fact, the rest of "Mojave's" cast is such a treat, it's pretty much impossible not to be bored to tears by Hedlund's Thomas, a handsome black hole of pseudo-intellectual affectation who's clearly read too much Cormac McCarthy.
One ultimately wonders how much of the movie is Monahan indulging in a bit of sardonic self-flaggelation for all his success in an industry that he doesn't seem to respect very much. A looming Isaac would concur that it's a bit of a conundrum, brother.
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at splicedpersonality.com.