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Stone by Angus MacLachlan and Edward Norton and John Curran

Alfred Hitchcock allegedly said, “No one ever made a good film from a bad script.” Though I can’t say that’s true 100% of the time, it is true that good scripts are turned into bad films with much more frequency than the opposite. Stone ranks high among the worst scripts I’ve ever read (and I’ve read I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and the direct-to-DVD sequel to 30 Days of Night), but it piqued my curiosity. The draft I read has Edward Norton’s name on it, and he’s usually something of a quality magnet. Even when he’s in a bad film, it’s usually an ambitious misfire rather than an out-and-out bomb. So why would he not only attach himself to a script this bad but actively take part in rewriting it?

The simplistic story begins in 1970, when a younger Jack Marino (played in the present by Robert De Niro) takes a vacation with wife Madylyn and daughter Candace. He’s an unpleasant man prone to fits of anger, and everywhere they go, ex-cons seem drawn to Jack, their former parole officer. When Madylyn threatens to leave Jack—she no longer wants to put up with his drinking and anger—he threatens her right back, holding Candace over their hotel room balcony, insisting he’ll drop her if Madylyn leaves. To sum up: he’s a really pleasant guy any moviegoer would be happy to spend two hours watching.

Forty years later, Jack and Candace are estranged, but he’s still married to Madylyn. As he approaches retirement, Jack has to review one last inmate for possible parole: George “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton), an obnoxious and seemingly unrepentant man. Jack sees right through his generic platitudes, and Stone is smart enough to realize he’s fighting a losing battle. Enter Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), Stone’s beautiful wife. She charms Jack, then starts sleeping with him. Jack claims to see right through their game, but he continues to sleep with Lucetta, then falsifies his review for the parole board in accordance with her desires.

Finally, he gets angry at both Lucetta and Stone for using him—so angry, in fact, that he tries to pull his review at the last minute and rewrite it—and honestly, this turn points to the script’s biggest problem: its story is thin, it wants to be a character study, but its characters (including Jack) are as weak as a cup of old Sanka. Jack’s behavior throughout the script seems wildly inconsistent—and not because of the drunkenness depicted in the opening flashback, because he rarely drinks during the present-day story—because he never rises above a generic stereotype. Here’s all we learn about Jack: he’s prone to rage, he’s good at his job, and he’s a cop who isn’t far removed from the criminals he interacts with on a daily basis. Never seen that before! His behavior gets weird, but his motives are never clear, so it comes off as nonsensical rather than complex.

Maybe some depth or nuance—or, at least, mystery—could have been added to Stone and Lucetta, but the script telegraphs their every movement in such frustrating detail, there’s no question of their priorities: Stone and Lucetta have hatched a plan for her to seduce him. The thing I keep seeing everyone talking about with this film is Stone’s religious epiphany. The script isn’t about that—in fact, it doesn’t enter into the equation until more than halfway through. Like Lucetta’s seduction, the writers telegraph Stone’s “epiphany,” making it abundantly clear that he’s faking it because he initially fears Lucetta’s seduction won’t be enough to get him released. Stone wants nothing more than to get out of prison, and every scene in which Jack and Stone interact shows him as an intelligent criminal testing Jack’s defenses. Stone takes many different approaches in hammering Jack, and clearly participates in Lucetta’s seduction plan. The “epiphany” is preceded by him looking at a convict praying with his visiting family, then rushing to the library to read all he can about religion. The script tries to toe this line that the transformation could be real, but why would anyone of sound mind think there’s a divine explanation for Stone’s change? When Stone questions Jack’s faith in God, it feels more like an admission that the big mystery doesn’t work at all. “You should believe in our half-baked mystery,” the script is saying, “because if you don’t, it means you lack faith.” First they insult us with bad writing, then they insult our moral character.

Finally, they insult our intelligence. The third act lays out a new mystery: once Stone gets released, Jack’s house burns down. He and Madylyn narrowly escape, and although Jack blames Stone (his crime was arson, to cover up murders committed by his cousin), the script does leave some hint that he could have caused the fire himself by leaving the stove on. Inexplicably, Madylyn lies to fire officials and claims there’s a faulty wire in the kitchen. Then, she leaves Jack. She’s found out about him and Lucetta, so it’s over. Her leaving makes sense. Lying about who or what caused the fire is baffling, however. Madylyn barely exists in the story, so there’s no believable motive for it. It’s just a cheap, melodramatic punch immediately after the overwrought symbolism of the couple’s “whole life” being destroyed in the fire.

There’s more melodrama to come, though. Jack gets drunk and goes after Stone with his gun. He demands to know why Stone is torturing him. Stone’s not afraid of him, and leaves Jack a pitiful mess, turning the gun on himself. All of this is tied up in a lazy “buzzing” motif every time Jack gets angry, made all the lazier by incorporating “buzzing” and “vibration” into the faux-religion Stone adopts.

Stone is simply an awful script. It has nothing new to say about cops, criminals, anger management, alcoholism, or religion—in fact, it has very little to say at all about those subjects, using them as reductive character traits rather than broader thematic devices. The script tries to bury its emptiness under lengthy, dialogue-driven scenes (notably the interview sessions between Jack and Stone), but those scenes accomplish the amazing feat of letting characters talk for a very long time without revealing anything insightful about themselves and/or the human condition. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Adding insult to injury, the dialogue is embarrassingly bad at points. Certain characters—particularly Jack—too frequently lapse into what sounds like a 19-year-old drama student ad-libbing the emotional core of a scene rather than rehearsing the scene itself. It’s less noticeable with younger characters like Stone and Lucetta, but Jack does not sound like a man in his 60s. That lack of verisimilitude hurts an already bad script.

So how does the film compare to this trainwreck?

Weirdly, Curran improves the finished film by removing most of the hackneyed attempts at mystery. Gone are the implications that Lucetta seduces Jack with permission, that Stone is faking his religious awakening, or that Jack is anything other than a hypocrite with rage-management issues. Instead of it feeling like Stone is trying to test Jack’s weaknesses like a velociraptor jumping against an electric fence, Norton plays Stone as absolutely sincere from the moment he appears in the film. He’s sincere but not very bright; when he misspeaks, it’s not a calculated attempt to gauge Jack’s defenses. When Stone’s religious transformation occurs, Norton plays it in a way that’s much more believable than the dialogue he recites. It’s an impressive performance, and I can now see why he was drawn to such an awful script. He knew he could do things with the character a lesser actor wouldn’t even dream of doing.

Even the mystery of the fire is transformed. There’s not even a hint that Jack may have caused it himself, or that it was in any way an accident. Curran makes it abundantly clear that somebody broke in and set the fire. Because of Norton’s performance, two things snap into focus: the fact that he fully admits that he’s not a reformed person so much as a person who accepts responsibilities for his actions, and the fact that he didn’t send Lucetta after Jack. Stone’s anger and hurt are real, and his psychotic reaction is no surprise. The only thing that remains a mystery is Madylyn’s response to the fire. It makes no sense in the script, and it makes no sense in the film. Madylyn is even more downplayed in the film than in the script, and not even Frances Conroy playing Madylyn as a largely confused drunk can make it work.

Ironically, much as the film improves on the script by downplaying the mysterious aspects of the story, it hits the religious aspects with the heaviest possible hand, bringing it right back around to hackneyed. Frequently incorporating Christian radio broadcasts on the soundtrack—including, near the end, Stone trying to explain his new philosophy on a call-in show—emphasizing the legitimacy of Stone’s transformation, and playing up Jack’s absence of faith make the whole film seem annoyingly overwrought. The script strained desperately to justify its existence, while the film hits audiences over the head with a theme as subtle as Davey and Goliath.

Where the script and film remain pretty much the same is with Jack. Curran plays up the thriller aspects to create the illusion something interesting is happening in the film, but at the end of the day it remains a bland character study of a man we know no better at the end of the film than we did at the beginning. De Niro is a great actor, and it’s nice to see him actually trying instead of just phoning it in or mugging comedically. There’s just not much of a character here for him to sink his teeth into. He does a fine job with what he has to work with, but unlike Norton, De Niro doesn’t bring anything unexpected to the table to make the role feel like more than the empty vessel it is. Strangely, Curran excises several character-building scenes from the script (like the entire subplot about his estrangement from Candace). In the script, those scenes didn’t exactly make Jack into a brilliantly rendered, multifaceted character, but it’s still odd that he’d remove the few scenes that do bring a little bit of extra shading to him.

Finally, the third act remains an insulting mess. It’s actually slightly worse in the film than in the script, because the script starts out bad and gets worse. The film starts out okay before completely falling apart. The many changes evidently made during production—Norton’s read on the character, the amping up of the religious themes, etc.—undermine a conclusion that never worked in the first place. Jack still insists he knows he’s being conned, he still lets Stone go anyway, he still tries desperately to change his report on Stone, and he still chases Stone with a gun after the fire. On the plus side, Curran cut the eye-rolling moment where Jack, after failing to successfully confront Stone, briefly turns the gun on himself to really drive home his self-hatred.

On the whole, despite the changes between script and screen, most scenes in Stone still feel a lot like an Actors Studio workshop where two actors improvise in character, revealing a lot of character information that actors find incredibly important and audiences don’t. I had the same hope for Stone that I did with A Single Man: That the caliber of acting involved and a handful of positive reviews from critics I trust would mean the filmmakers had accomplished the impossible and made a good film from a bad script. Stone is better than its script, but it’s still pretty bad.

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