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Manipulative Moments 

A series of flashbacks and a drippy soundtrack make for a terrible emotional wreck in 'Ladder 49'

As a film critic, I'm pretty much obliged to like movies in general. Even a crappy SNL-alum comedy can be a good time for me, if only for the pleasure of watching the miraculous process of sync sound.

So it's a rare treat to find a real stinker, a movie so intensely awful that years from now it will be vomited forth from hell when Satan watches it on his infernal VCR and hits the high-powered eject button in frustration.

Such a film is Ladder 49, which I'd like to say is the worst film of the year, except that this is the year that brought us Exorcist: The Beginning, What The &*^% Do We Know, and the undisputed winner, Against the Ropes.

Ladder 49's great sin is manipulative sentimentalism. While this works in tawdry fields where emotion holds sway over reason, like politics, it's not going to fly in the hard-nosed movie business.

The film begins with Joaquin Phoenix, as firefighter Jack Morrison, fighting his way through a burning building. This, we are made to understand, is what Morrison loves to do, but soon, Morrison's love becomes a funeral pyre as the ceiling collapses and traps him in a blazing inferno of feelings.

While Jack lies on the floor, the most maudlin and manipulative moments of his life flash before his, and, unfortunately, our eyes. We see Jack on his first day on the job, getting ribbed by the boys. We see Jack befriending fellow fireman Billy Burke. We see Jack falling in love, saving a young girl from a fiery doom, mourning the death of his friends, getting married. It's pretty much the kind of thing you'll see at the slide show your kids will put together to torture you on your 75th birthday.

The problem is that a life expressed in emotional highlights is just not terribly interesting for anyone who doesn't know you personally. Watching Jack re-live his wedding and the birth of his first child and the day he got a medal and the time he first felt special love feelings is like walking into someone else's family gathering. There's lots being said, and it's clearly of importance to the people saying it, but it just doesn't strike home.

Part of the problem is that lives have no plot, so the meandering story never gets much of a hook. A bigger issue is that everything that's shown is at the exact same emotional register. If we only see the highlights, the story has no rhythm, and it's hard to get pulled into it.

To exacerbate this, the soundtrack is endlessly manipulative. Robbie Robertson contributes one song, but most of it is traditional Irish sounds, and I'm not talking about the sound of bombs and vomiting.

Rather, it's lots of heart-tugging strings which serve as giant exclamation points every time Jack Morrison has a milestone moment in life. And, since the film is nothing but these milestone moments, the strings eventually tug so hard that the average heart would be displaced 4 to 6 inches, which can lead to serious coronary issues.

The upside of Ladder 49 is the acting. Everyone's pretty good, but they really have nothing to work with. Joaquin Phoenix is one of the better actors of his generation, but he's forced to play such a sap that it's hard to care. Still, if you line this movie up with his other performances, you can really get a sense of how he vanishes into a role, and how wide his range is.

John Travolta does a toned-down John Travolta as Captain Mike Kennedy. It's interesting to watch Travolta here, because his normal mime of emotions, which is often entertaining, is here replaced by a more immersive acting style. Except at a few key moments, Travolta actually seems to be feeling what his character is feeling.

Balthazar Getty is wasted in a small role, and Robert Patrick is wasted in a larger one, but all their talent couldn't save this movie from the smell bin. Nor could the competent, if uninspired, cinematography, which gets pointlessly tricky at a few fiery moments, but never really goes overboard. The directing is also reasonably workmanlike, but nothing can overcome this script and story.

It goes nowhere but to the center of the heart, and there it finds a pulpy mess that it mistakes for depth and meaning. It's not. It's just treacly red goop, and unless you want to wallow in the emotionally repetitive life of an uninvolving character, I'd suggest you not get sullied by this sticky mess.

Ladder 49
Rated NR

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