The United States of Leland has a puppy-dog sincerity and an I.Q. to match. This star-studded indie—which juggles Kevin Spacey, Ryan Gosling, Jena Malone, Don Cheadle, Chris Klein, Michelle Williams, Lena Olin, Martin Donovan, Ann Magnuson, and Sherilyn Fenn--works wholly unconvincing, downright befuddling dialogue and characterizations into a soapy lather.
In what one hopes against hope will be the nail in the coffin of post-Columbine indies, The United States of Leland casts Gosling (so good in The Believer) as a disaffected, apparently dispassionate, unaccountably sympathetic high-school killer (Gosling also drones the stilted narration). Conveniently, writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge makes the victim mentally challenged (one less character to develop), but Gosling's character, too, remains mostly opaque, merely an excuse to hold a mirror up to the frustrated suburbanites who unwittingly contributed to his nihilistic eruption.
Spacey, for instance, plays the lad's dad, a famous author and all-around snide hard-ass. Jena Malone plays the boy's one-time girlfriend, and Don Cheadle plays his confessor, a prison teacher who oversteps his bounds to collect material for a sure-fire bestseller. The latter spin on the goody-goody psychologist archetype (see Ordinary People) and the rejection of easy answers would seem to bode well for satisfying drama, but the results are, at best, noncommittal and, at worst, inanely pretentious. Hoge could have followed through with a number of provocative themes (exploitation of criminal defendants, the cracked logic used to justify homicide, the barely-coiled rage of victims' loved ones), but settles for psuedo-American Beauty uplift. Arrhythmic and lousy with melancholy, The United States of Leland is, in fact, just plain lousy.