Troubled Direction: ‘Joe Bell’ suffers from some false steps

An important and heart wrenching true story leads to a well-intentioned but middling film with Joe Bell, a "departure" for Mark Wahlberg that results in some of the more uneven work of his career. He's all over the place in this movie.

The film is based on the real-life events that led to a man named Joe Bell (Wahlberg) pledging to walk across the country in the name of his bullied son, Jadin (Reid Miller). Jadin is gay, and a victim of harassment and violent abuse at his high school. Joe, a conflicted man in his own right, is determined to do something about the harm being done to his boy.

We first see Joe walking on the highway with Jadin alongside, the son giving the Old Man some good-natured guff. Joe is a cranky, irritated sort, with Wahlberg's work sometimes reminding of Andy Samberg's whiny rendition of the actor during his "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals" sketches on SNL. Joe struggles with his own homophobic tendencies, which still come to the surface even as he's walking across the country with his son to fight homophobia and bullying.

Father and son talk a bit about their pilgrimage, and the mission is a solid one. There are some good scenes between the two, including some flashbacks. The movie works best when Wahlberg is dialing it down a bit and Miller gets a chance to shine. Miller is good in the movie despite being saddled with a few scenes that you could swear you've seen a thousand times before due to lack of originality.

That lack of originality is surprising considering the screenplay's pedigree, written by the team of Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the duo responsible for the Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain script. The film is directed by Renaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), and he doesn't have a steady hand, especially when it comes to Wahlberg.

There are times when Joe Bell hits the right emotional notes, but those times are done in by the confusing Wahlberg performance and some terrible narrative choices, one being a gigantic head scratcher that robs the movie of its effectiveness. The gimmicky plot move damages the film in its first half, to a point beyond redemption despite some better moments deep into its running time. The "big twist" is a gut punch to the movie's momentum. It's a genuinely bad "Oh, come on!" moment that distracts rather than enhances.

The film establishes that the Joe Bell character is a confused and anguished person, but Wahlberg's performance seems lost in the wilderness. His character swings from vicious homophobia to humble apologist at unconvincing speeds. Especially terrible is a scene that requires Joe to get mad at another one of his sons for a toilet seat mishap. It's like the writers Googled "things a dad might get mad about" and just plunked it into the script to give Wahlberg a chance to shout.

Another example of odd, misguided storytelling are the Joe Bell speeches that bracket the film. His first speech is an underwhelming, short mess of a time where he's just glad to be done with it and rush off the stage. The point is made that Joe is not good in front of crowds and some of his words are insincere.

After that speech, the whole movie leads up to a moment (after a late cameo by Gary Sinise) where Joe gets up in front of a high school near film's end for a new talk. He starts the speech, a speech that has been set up as his redemptive moment, and then it just dissolves to another scene after a few seconds. I have to think they filmed that whole speech. Perhaps they didn't get a good take of it?

Joe Bell is not a well-made movie, but it is admirable in what it is trying to do. While fundamentally unsound overall, it's well meaning, it does bring some awareness to an important issue, and it does have solid work from Miller to counter the Wahlberg shortcomings. So, it's a movie that I'm glad got made even though I don't like it. That happens sometimes.

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