The same year that his “Spotlight” won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, writer-director Tom McCarthy also helmed “The Cobbler,” a little-seen Adam Sandler vehicle that bypassed Boston theaters on its way to earning $24,000 at the U.S. box office, a career-low for Sandler and presumably everyone else involved. The wretchedly winsome dramedy stars Sandler as the owner of a neighborhood footwear repair shop who, via a magical sewing machine inherited from his dead dad (Dustin Hoffman), can inhabit the body of anyone whose shoes he wears. This maudlin mess peaks with a staggeringly misguided scene during which Sandler takes his widowed mom on a date while wearing his late father’s loafers, before soaring into the annals of bad movie history with a twist revealing that Hoffman has been alive this entire time, disguised as a barber played by Steve Buscemi, and that for generations their family has been “the guardians of soles,” fighting forces of evil with their magic sewing machine. It ends with father and son driving away in a limousine that was hidden in the basement.
Now I’m not saying the surprise plot turn that powers the third act of McCarthy’s new thriller “Stillwater” is quite as crazily stupid as “The Cobbler,” but it’s recognizably the work of the same writer. A glum, ripped-from-the-headlines mystery practically choking on its own sense of societal import, McCarthy’s prestige picture follow-up to 2015's “Spotlight” (he directed a Disney flick called “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” in the interim) is the kind of movie somebody makes after winning a mantle full of awards, when nobody in their orbit dares second-guess a so-called genius.
“Stillwater” wants to be a lot of things at once and manages to be bad at all of them. On one hand, it’s a lurid rewrite of the Amanda Knox story, with Abigail Breslin playing a white exchange student stuck in a Marseilles prison, accused of murdering her Arab roommate, with whom she was romantically involved. But it also wants to say something about America, about cultural divides and the way we are seen by the world. So we’ve got Matt Damon starring as Breslin’s father, a salt-of-the-Earth construction worker from Oklahoma “gettin’ ‘er done” in fancy-pants France, refusing to give up on his little girl even after the rest of the world has written her off.
One can easily imagine a tawdry, xenophobic thriller in the mode of “Taken” with Damon’s aggrieved redneck daddy kicking butt in the Marseilles projects until he finds the real killer, but God forbid, that might have been entertaining. Instead, “Stillwater” is starchy in that way the worst social issue movies tend to be, plodding along without providing the satisfactions of genre nor the depths of a character study. It’s the worst of both worlds. McCarthy’s camera observes Damon saying his prayers and slathering his meals with ketchup at an almost anthropological reserve — this guy with the baseball cap, tucked-in flannel shirt and wraparound sunglasses is a mystery not just to these highfalutin’ French artistes with their man-buns and baguettes, but to the filmmakers as well.
Damon gives as credible a performance as he can while being egregiously miscast. The Cantabrigian has convincingly played cowboys before, most memorably as the yammering Texas Ranger in the Coen brothers’ great “True Grit,” and he pulled off a fine Tommy Lee Jones impression as racing legend Carroll Shelby in “Ford v Ferrari.” But the “Stillwater” screenplay is constantly telling us what a dangerous screw-up this character is. His clenched, impeccable manners are supposed to be the coping mechanisms of an ex-con just barely keeping a lid on his violent, lunkhead tendencies, yet Matt Damon might be the least volatile star working today. His whole appeal is even-keeled affability. Just look at his killer cameo in Steven Soderbergh’s terrific new HBO Max movie “No Sudden Move” to see a guy steady as a rock whatever he’s walking into. (As much as it pains me to say this, Mark Wahlberg might have been a better choice here, no matter how badly he’d have mangled the accent.)
There’s a huge stretch in the middle of “Stillwater” that forgets about the murder mystery altogether and focuses on Damon’s life in Marseille, rooming with a single mom (Camille Cottin) and her moppet of a daughter (Lilou Siauvaud). This extended passage has some of the low-key charms of McCarthy’s first, and still best films “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” which chronicled unlikely friendships among folks from different walks of life. These scenes are performed endearingly by the actors, especially the little girl, but they also fall prey to the limousine liberal pandering you find in stuff like Jon Stewart’s odious “Irresistible,” positing that the cultural differences dividing people are mostly a matter of cosmetics, and if we can just get past our snobbery about fried food and country music everyone will be able to hug it out. “Stillwater” is extremely careful not to have Damon say anything racist, homophobic or otherwise objectionable to the sensibilities of arthouse moviegoers, and they even come up with a clever way to keep him from being a Trump voter that belongs in the screenwriting cop-out hall of fame.
It’s probably impossible given the Marseilles locations for movie buffs not to be reminded of “French Connection II,” which sent Gene Hackman’s pig-headed bigot Popeye Doyle elbowing his way through the port city barking obscenities and epithets. A rare sequel even seedier and more unpleasant than the original, director John Frankenheimer’s underrated 1975 follow-up to William Friedkin’s classic purposely left the French dialogue unsubtitled to keep us locked into Popeye’s alienated perspective, thereby implicated in his actions. The point was that the ugly Americans are all of us, something that a film as genteel and flattering to its target audience as “Stillwater” would never dare imply.
Instead we’ve got Damon discovering the actual killer in a coincidence that caused the critic sitting beside me to throw his notebook on the auditorium floor and his hands up in the air. (I’ve calculated the odds of this scene occurring in real life as 67,394 to one.) From there, “Stillwater” flies completely off the rails, almost surreal in its abandonment of character and logic, grounded only by McCarthy’s leaden visual sensibility and uncanny knack for always putting the camera in the dullest possible place. (“Spotlight” was the most pictorially uninteresting movie to win Best Picture in my lifetime, a film already forgotten by anyone who doesn’t work at the Boston Globe.) For the final scene of “Stillwater,” he brazenly attempts to steal the ending of the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men,” shot from an angle at which my 10-year-old niece would tell you never to take a selfie. He’d have been better off having Damon and Breslin drive away in a limousine hidden in the basement.
“Stillwater” opens in theaters Friday, July 30.