The Piss-Bright Blast of the Falsest of Suns

1. “He meant well,” a ticket-buyer said, shuffling miserably out of a Thursday-night screening of Roland Emmerich's calamitous Stonewall. “That's got to count for something.”

I don't think that's true. If those good intentions had counted, they might have inspired Emmerich to not trust himself to helm this fictionalized recounting of the 1969 West Village uprising that birthed the Gay Liberation Front. Intentions worth toasting would have found the director of Independence Day and Godzilla '98 putting this story in the hands of a filmmaker adept at the personal and the political, one subtle enough to capture how, in heated times, individual injustices can accrete into sweeping public outrage.

Nah. Emmerich meant so well that the picture went to a director whose last hit peaked with a car chase on the White House lawn. Emmerich's movies never show us change bubbling up from people and out into the world—they work the other way around, with change in the form of tidal waves and motherships coming at the people, who dutifully run. And another director, one who sees change coming rather than as something to flee when it hits, might have understood that the story of Stonewall is not the hero's journey of Jeremy Irvine's Mark-Paul Gosselaar lookalike, who comes from the heartland but has never heard of Dorothy Gale. The social-media outrage the film stirred even before the reviews came in is entirely justified: How could these producers have so misread their audience? Why does this movie about misfits of all races star the little gold man from the top of high-school sports trophies?

2. Since he's good at showing us things happening to people rather than people making things happen, the film's climax is its greatest botch. A cop marvels that “every fag in New York” has gathered in Sheridan Square outside the Stonewall Inn, the infamous gay club so often raided by police, but the movie hasn't bothered to set up why, outside two stray mentions of Judy Garland's death.

In the moments before the riot, private drama between the film's made-up heroes and Stonewall owner Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) crashes into the public drama of yet another raid on the club. For personal reasons nobody else in the Square knows about, the leads have reached a boiling point with the club's Mob ownership—the Hoosier screams, “Gay power!” and chucks a brick at a window. Then, for reasons (again) never made clear, every member of that crowd from nowhere simultaneously decides they've had enough, too.

Recall all the currents of rage, frustration and humiliation that surge into the moment when Spike Lee's Mookie tosses that trash can into Sal's Famous. Stonewall has none of that clarity or power: Until the riot squad shows up, the crowd's anger is so vague and directionless that Emmerich cuts away from it, believing that what we're actually interested in is the mocking disbelief of the cops holed up inside the club. Instead of a dangerous triumph or collective resistance, this uprising plays like the mad lark of cartoonish bohemians, as if Chris Columbus' Rent—the movie Stonewall most resembles—ended with its starving artists burning down Alphabet City.

3. Stonewall aspires to be a sweeping tale of social change and hardscrabble street life, but at every moment, it feels like a musical whose numbers have been cut. Lickety-split after hitting the chintziest ersatz Manhattan this side of Sesame Street, our alpha-hunk Indianan has fallen in with a gang of hustlers and drag queens as broad and one-note as West Side Story's Jets. Love interest Ray (Jonny Beauchamp) teaches the hero about shoplifting, and then, at bedtime, offers up Stonewall's version of the rabbits speech from Of Mice and Men: a soothing vision of a future in California, with a house and a pharmacy degree—and Judy, Liza and Lorna! There's so clearly a ballad coming on that I was tempted to help it along by tooting on a pitch pipe. And, seriously, the loss of narrative showtunes might explain the movie's bizarre time jumps and truncated subplots.

4. Stonewall goes all-in on tuck-in time, but it's otherwise primly terrified of the bedroom. Only one sex act in the film is un-harrowing, and that's a fleeting moment between our Hoosier and a lover he's never intimate with onscreen again—despite dating for some two months. (Stonewall's timeline is baffling.) Emmerich's film is stripped of sensuality. Men don't kiss, here. The Indianan is too shy even to dance, really. Twice, he's impressed into turning a trick, both for men the film considers loathsome. In the first instance, the john slowly undoes the hero's belt, and then fusses with reverence with the top of his briefs—golden boy's cornfed junk is built up, but then coyly unrevealed, just like the contents of that Pulp Fiction briefcase. The second scene is cruel: The john is a plump mouth-breather in lingerie, our boy is forced to suck him off against his will, and the whole setup could have been copy-pasted from a Hangover movie, where it would win great shock-disgusted laughs from the frat-house crowd.

Worse even than these is our (white) hero's failure to respond in any meaningful way to the romantic interests of the likable (Puerto Rican) Ray, who gets blown off so cavalierly and so often it's as if the movie can't even imagine a world in which the hero might sully himself with such a creature. “I'm too mad to love,” the Indianan tells Ray after the riot. That kiss-off would be hard to swallow even if we hadn't once seen Irvine make passionate moon-eyes at Warhorse for two hours—with World War I raging around him!

5. Stonewall has the nastiest color palette I can recall in a “major” motion picture. Most shots are harshly overprocessed, tainted with something sickly unnatural—they look the way a quiche cooked in a microwave would taste.

Much will be written about the movie's general lack of verisimilitude, or the way everything takes place on one cramped and artificial block of Christopher Street. But the one thing here that is truly, singularly awful in a new and pure way is the film's lighting. The daylight scenes are the biggest scream: Every window of every room seems to look out directly onto the surface of the sun. Sometimes, windows on opposite sides of the same building are ablaze with its yellow-green fury. Once, when that Hoosier calls home, we see that the impossible light behind him near Washington Square is also behind his mother in Indiana.

Perhaps Emmerich has neglected to tell us that he has set the film during one of his pop apocalypses. Or maybe he just mistakes the jaundiced glow in which he has bathed his Stonewallers for something warm and nourishing. These poor actors! There they toil in the piss-bright blast of the falsest of suns—Roland Emmerich's good intentions.

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