The Good: Moments of acting, Moments of character
The Bad: Virtually no plot, Oppressive mood, Nothing special on DVD
The Basics: Long, ponderous and uncathartic, Half Nelson is yet another drama where the viewer is supposed to empathize with a pathetic druggie. I didn't.
Did you ever watch one of those movies that virtually everyone is praising and simply sit back and say "Who cares?!" I certainly felt the isolation of being the only one in my immediate circle of friends to react that way to Napoleon Dynamite (reviewed here!). And after weeks of hearing how great Ryan Gosling was in Half Nelson, the first film I would see the actor in, I finally picked the film up on DVD and gave it a spin. Yeah, I'm back at that same place, with that same question again.
Dan Dunne is a junior high school teacher who is teaching social studies in an economically depressed inner city school district. He is addicted to crack cocaine and while he spends his days trying to inspire students with lectures on the nature of change, he spends his nights in a rut doing coke. When one of his students, a basketball player named Drey, catches him using drugs, the two form an unlikely friendship made more complicated by the fact that one of Drey's former father figures knows of Dan's drug habit. This guts Dan's moral authority to try to steer Drey right and she becomes wary of Dan as his habit gets worse. While Dan sinks further into addiction, the school's principal pressures him to use the text book and fly right, threatening his job along with everything else.
Dan is a pretty miserable character and he is played by Ryan Gosling with a slow, almost dimwitted glaze that instantly makes the viewer wonder why the middle school hired him in the first place. Indeed, the viewer wonders how Dan made it through college to become a teacher. And for those of us who care about such things as characters and have a desire to understand such things, we come to wonder what got Dan into drugs at all. After all, something got him started, something escalated him into the downward spiral where Half Nelson begins. But we are not privileged to that information.
The problem is, lacking it makes it difficult to care. In reality, it's easy to care about a drug-addled person without knowing their life's story, but if we are watching one person's struggle with drugs as a form of supposed entertainment, the least it could do would be to make sense. There should be something that drives us to the character, that makes us either want to empathize with him or else at least understand him or her. Writer Anna Boden and writer-director Ryan Fleck seem to disagree and the result is a shocking lack of character for the principle who dominates the screen.
Conversely, Drey makes a great deal of sense. Neglected by her overworking mother, she latches onto strong male figures in an attempt to fill the void left by her absent father. We get that. Drey's character is consistent and while she wanders a bit too close to the things she supposedly disdains for comfort, the viewer is willing to forgive the conceit. Drey buries her life in school work - where Dan tries to inspire her - and her basketball. Beyond that, she's just a kid.
The problem with Half Nelson is that Drey's storyline makes sense and works, but it is Dan who dominates the film. As a result, he begins to senselessly womanize and throw his life away as the drug addiction takes more and more of his sense of reality away from him. But the truth is, we don't care. Dan is not a particularly brilliant educator who seems to have a lot to offer his students. Instead, he continues to teach the same lesson over and over again with his students presenting reports on the nature of change in the world. The students seem quite able to look the information up on their own to fit Dan's thesis of change as a constant.
But basically, Dan continues to descend and the viewer isn't given enough about him to genuinely care whether he lives or dies. There's no real catharsis to Half Nelson and while I could stomach that in a story with a well-defined character who was interesting, here it just seems like a pointless exercise in cinematic experimentation. Dan's got a seemingly decent life, craps it up with drugs, it goes downhill . . .see ya. That's Half Nelson.
It's pretty sad when the most exciting moment of the film for me was the appearance of Deborah Rush on screen. Long after I had stopped caring at all about Dan - or even Drey -, the protagonist goes home to visit his family for dinner and his mother is played by Deborah Rush. Rush played Jeri Blank's mother in Strangers With Candy (reviewed here!). After over an hour of foot-dragging and boredom even the appearance of a supporting actress on a show I didn't truly enjoy was enough for me to sit up, smile and say, "She was on something marginally better than this!"
That's pretty sad.
Perhaps as sad is the fact that Shareeka Epps, who played Drey easily steals every scene she is in away from Ryan Gosling. I say this is say because Epps is playing a promising young student and basketball player. Given her aptitude for the film's lines, one assumes she is a promising young person, so how much acting she is actually called upon to do here is in serious question. Director Ryan Fleck could easily have said, "Read the script, then act like a junior high school student" and that would have worked for the role.
Presuming Ryan Gosling is not now, nor has ever been, a coked up junior high school teacher, one would expect his performance to require some seriously great acting that would constantly draw our attention. Instead, he is understated and, well, boring as Dan. For sure, he's playing a man whose life is in the toilet and going down the drain, but Gosling adds nothing to the performance to make us care about the pathetic character he is playing. Instead, the viewer sits, waits it out and vows never to watch the film again. Of course, given how the character is coked out and mellow, perhaps the flaws are within the character and Gosling is giving an amazing performance. There are more interesting drug-addled people to watch in Boogie Nights (reviewed here!) or Magnolia (reviewed here!); and in those films, the actors - Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, and Melora Walters - give great performances that I can easily recognize as being different from anything else they have done. Not so with Gosling in Half Nelson.
On DVD, the movie contains a boring commentary with a bunch of people - like the director - speaking in pretentious terms about why they made the choices they did. There are also deleted scenes which were fortunately excised from this film and prevented it from being even longer. Sure, it's only 106 minutes, but it feels at least six times as long.
So, there's the hype for Half Nelson and Ryan Gosling, but if you don't find slow, dull, repetitive outings of a druggie circling the bowl entertaining, then you might want to avoid this flick. I wish I had.
For other works with Ryan Gosling, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Idea Of March
Crazy, Stupid, Love.
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.