Who is Leland P. Fitzgerald? No one knows … least of all the filmmakers.
The point of “The United States of Leland” is to gain an understanding of why a normal (although slightly autistic) teenager would kill an innocent, mentally retarded kid. The opening scene delves into the immediate post-crime environment: the camera hovers over the playground, getting closer and closer to the ground until passing over the body of the slain youth. The shot is accompanied by a voice-over spoken by the protagonist, Leland, played by Ryan Gosling, and it guides the audience into the main narrative arc, as well as providing a description of the movie’s overall structure: namely, the accountability of memory.
Again and again the question comes up: “Why? Why did Leland do it?” This refrain provides the basis for most of Leland’s relationships, which the movie depicts in prolonged flashbacks. However, the world of the film never feels complete (perhaps because it starts with a scene of absence) and so the question becomes a recurring annoyance rather than a point of interest. Why did Leland kill the boy? The answer certainly doesn’t lie in the teen-angst-ridden world of the boy’s sisters, or even in the pathetic regrets of his parents, both of which the movie dwells upon in detail. Leland provides little more than a backdrop for most of the dramatic action that takes place, which is odd because these scenes are intended to provide windows into his psyche.
This kind of misdirected structure is paralleled in the visual style of the film. Characters simply refuse to move. Shot-countershot conversations follow one another in uninspired monotony, all in medium close-up (often complimented with an unnecessary zoom), until it feels as if everyone in the film is paraplegic. The cinematography rarely fulfils the promise of the film’s opening shot. True, this minimalist aesthetic allows the actors to flex their talents, but rarely are the lines poignant or even worth listening to. With a superb cast, headed up by Kevin Spacey, Don Cheadle and the up-and-coming Gosling, such a waste of thespian promise is unforgivable. The cast doesn’t feel like the ensemble it is intended to be, and instead comes across more like a series of cameo appearances — which, unfortunately, suits the prevalent “after-school special” tone of the film.
With lots of balls in the air, and with lots of loose ends to tie up, “The United States of Leland” never comes to a fulfilling conclusion. It relies on a catch-all (desperation?) voice-over to wrap things up, when really all this does is reveal that there was nothing to wrap up in the first place. Who is Leland P. Fitzgerald? Who knows. One thing is for sure: no one is closer to understanding than when the film first started.
It is understandable, however, why Mr. Spacey would choose to produce the picture and why Ryan Gosling would select it as the follow-up to his powerful debut film, “The Believer.” Blame it on P.T. Anderson and Edward Norton. “The United States of Leland” clearly models itself on the work of Anderson in terms of its offbeat tonality and sweeping content matter. Yet “Magnolia” it is not, and “Punch Drunk Love” it is not either. The lesson here: filmmakers can’t just throw together a bunch of disparate characters, supposedly linked through a central character or event, and expect to come out with “that P.T. Anderson feel.” Why? They’re not P.T., plain and true. On paper, “The United States of Leland” probably looked like a good candidate, but in the wrong hands it crumbles to dust.
As for Gosling, he’s got a case of the Nortons. Who is Leland P. Fitzgerald? He’s Aaron Stampler from “Primal Fear” … or at least he wants to be. Gosling already has the neo-Nazi role under his belt (ahem, ahem … Norton in “American History X”) and now he tallies up the suspiciously criminal youth character. Unfortunately, Leland lacks the dimensionality of Norton’s Stampler (scratch that — they’re not even in the same dramatic universe), and he never gains the audience’s sympathy, or even its ire. Gosling has plenty of talent, it’s clear — but he’s going to need a little help to become the next Ed. Paging Brad Pitt and David Fincher, anyone …