With hardly a breath taken in contemplation of the sulfurous odor left to linger by Casa de los Babys, our reigning middle-class-liberal auteur does it again—takes on a loaded social context with the grace of a rail-splitter. Is there another socially engaged American filmmaker as tone-deaf and clubfooted as John Sayles? I suppose we should be glad he’s engaged at all, although this year it’s hardly cause for braggadocio. An ambitious but chickenhearted state of the union address, Silver City begins aptly enough with a campaign commercial—for a witless, DWI-haunted Bush-fils simulacrum (Chris Cooper), whose bid for the Colorado governorship is being paid for and shepherded by a corporate mogul (Kris Kristofferson) longing to turn the state’s national parks into malls. Only Sayles could try and fail to locate comedy in President Malaprop’s podium fumblings, but forget it, we have a macguffin to deal with—an unidentified body gets hooked during the lakeside ad shoot, and a hasty investigation/cover-up by the inept candidate’s handlers ensues.
Insofar as Sayles’s entire plot hinges on a clownish private dick (Danny Huston) hired to threaten the fortunate son’s handful of enemies under the pretense that they somehow planted the body in the lake, credibility tells its sad story walking. Often at least a savvy caster, Sayles must’ve been having a psychotic episode when he placed his movie on Huston’s shoulders. A busy supporting player and an occasional director, Huston expends his leading-man opportunities gazing deadeyed at his co-stars, grinning like a below-average kindergartner, and reading his lines with soap-operatic eagerness. You can smell the perspiring discomfort of the other actors as Huston points his chin at them; when poor Maria Bello, as a journalist-ex-girlfriend, is made to describe him as “intense,” the word naturally dies in her mouth.
To be fair, Sayles’s scripts require preternaturally brilliant speakers; rarely does he miss a chance to flatten a joke or state the obvious. (A pause as Huston’s girlfriend-dumped lug gazes alone at an empty spot on his apartment floor, and then: “Used to be a couch here!”) Vying for a certain Chayefsky-ness, Silver City searches for satire, but only Daryl Hannah, as a spliff-sucking archeress cum senator’s outlaw daughter, seems to live in a purposefully absurd narrative. Elsewhere, Sayles cannot help but pound his pulpit, returning again to the issues of undocumented workers and border crises, complex matters boiled down like cabbage for those without teeth. Sayles, it seems, doesn’t think much of his audience, and the tone of his discourse is only nominally less pandering than a politician’s. Having Kristofferson’s universe master literally explain privatization to Cooper’s spoiled rube could’ve been a dense bit of farce, but instead Sayles plays it straight, explaining it to us.
Even Sayles’s apostles of anti-corporate truth—disheveled webmaster Tim Roth, nose-ringed assistant Thora Birch—sound like hippie-leftover bellyachers. Of the Altman-esque cast, Ralph Waite (as a disenfranchised mining administrator) and Miguel Ferrer (a bellicose neocon radio jock) manage to raise some hell despite the wads of unchewable exposition placed in their mouths. Perhaps worst of all, and despite his lead-lined-glove style, Sayles’s flaccid drama can hardly even work up a tremor of outrage about Bushie political puppeteering and high capitalism, in this our year of holy dissent. Any single minute of news footage, employed in any one of a dozen documentaries seen in the city this summer, has a deeper bite.