Let’s make one thing clear from the outset something much of movie-viewing America undoubtedly already knows: Oliver Stone, it’s evident, needs a therapist. Or at least a high colonic.
That said, the best art of any age typically comes from the dysfunctional artist, and “U-Turn” is just that - Stone’s oddball glimpse into a shadow America that no one wants to believe exists but that undoubtedly does.
Stone has been quoted as saying he wanted to make a movie that wouldn’t be reviewed in the editorial pages as “JFK,” “Nixon” and “Natural Born Killers” were, and “U-Turn” will probably succeed. He is adept, as always, at making America his collective therapist, and millions will absorb his angst as he chronicles a few days in the life of a hapless visitor to the washed-out desert town of Superior, Ariz.
Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), armed with a duffel bag full of cash, just wants to get to Vegas to pay off a debt when his red “1964-1/2” Mustang breaks down on a blistering, cracked Arizona highway. The nearest town, Superior, is three miles away, so he makes a U-turn and heads on in.
And the nightmare begins - a twisted ride during which we see Billy Bob Thornton play Twister with himself, Joaquin Phoenix eat a bus ticket and Nick Nolte do his very best Lee Marvin impression.
The plot, in brief: Bobby, no matter what he does, can’t get out of Superior. At every turn he is thwarted, whether it be by delicious, dangerous siren Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), bottom-feeding mechanic Darrell (Thornton), psychotic dandy hick Toby N. Tucker (“They call me TNT”) or the brooding Sheriff Potter (Powers Boothe). Along the way he gets sucked into a vortex of conspiracy, lurid sex and death.
This kind of approach could come off quite cliche, sort of a “Mayberry RFD” meets “Blue Velvet” in which Opie gets his ear cut off and Barney Fife ends up sleeping with Aunt Bee. But under Stone’s adept ministrations - and a self-restraint Stone rarely exhibits - “U-Turn” truly works.
As is Stone’s style, he draws from a melange of cinematic traditions, from the topsy-turvy photography of Russ Meyer’s 1960s soft-porn exploitation films to the quick cuts, off-dialogue stylism, narrative jumps and oblique diagonals of MTV’s “Real World.”
And “U-Turn” is schizophrenic, a veritable Sybil of scenes and semiotics. It’s David Lynch. Wait - it’s Sam Peckinpah, then Wim Wenders, then Quentin Tarantino. Stop - it’s Jean-Luc Godard and “Alphaville.”
Penn’s Bobby undergoes a remarkable transformation, from cockiness embodied to broken antihero. He starts out chastising Darrell: “That’s the difference between you and me. That’s why you’re living here and I’m just passing through.” By the end, he is broke, bawling and blubbering, desperate to get out of Superior any way he can.
Superior itself is a star - a real decaying town rebuilt by Stone into a movie-set community where everybody drives pre-1975 American cars, scorpions lurk in the water spigots and it’s 95 degrees by midmorning. This must be the town Norman Bates’ motel was on the outskirts of.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “U-Turn” Location: Lyons, Spokane Valley Mall and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Oliver Stone, starring Sean Penn, Jon Voight, Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe Running time: 2:05 Rating: R