Director Roland Emmerich offers a laughably tin-eared take on ’60s gay counterculture.
In Stonewall, Roland Emmerich does to the dignity of New York’s burgeoning LGBT community what he did to the White House in Independence Day. This children’s book-esque version of the story charting the three months leading up to the famous Stonewall riots of the late ’60s is twelve indistinguishable shades of vanilla, with Jeremy Irvine’s “Kansas farm boy” runaway, Danny, stepping up as the charisma-tundra focal point, a non-presence in a non-movie.
Forced to flee from Small Town America where the days are wiled away indoctrinating high-schoolers with homophobic propaganda, the teachers themselves snickering when the kids start hollering about “dirty faggots”, our hero ends up destitute in Greenwich Village which has already become a grubby hub for the gay/counterculture movement. In a cruel twist of fate, his straight-shooting pops is also the school football coach who goes about his job like an army drill sergeant, so any hope of family reparations is out of the question.
Within seconds he’s forced to fend off the advances of older men wanting to give him an extra hot dog for his lunch, but is saved by Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), an extrovert gay hustler who takes the lantern-jawed newbie under his feather boa. Throughout the film, Irvine has two performance modes: firstly it’s the wide-eyed gawp as he wanders through clandestine gay bars filled with men luxuriating in the free-spirited pleasures he thought that society had denied him; secondly we have the “I can’t believe you did that!” scowl, brandished when he’s walking away from an(other) awkward situation or fiery altercation. Both are awful.
The shops, bars and boarding houses are recreated with lavish period detail, so it’s a shame that Jon Robin Baitz’s screenplay is a hepatitic cocktail of soap opera clichés and woeful, wannabe-salty one liners. Emmerich is clearly a director who believes that getting to the essential truth of a matter in cinema is a case of getting era-correct labels on food cans. There’s even the feeling that he’s is slightly ashamed of the more openly gay characters in the film, as he lovingly hammers home the concept that gay people can wear suits too, that they can immerse themselves in the hetero masses and live in relative harmony with The Enemy if desired.
Ron Perlman turns up as the crooked boss of the Stonewall Inn, stepping in with his Mafia connections to take advantage of a gap in the market left by a law stating that it’s illegal to sell alcohol to homosexuals. A straight-arrow cop wants to take him down, and it’s his continuous busts which eventually cause bricks to be tossed and fires to be started. The infamous riot itself is a muted affair, with the police officers dashing into the night when overpowered by their LGBT combatants.
Remembering that Emmerich is one of the worst working directors in the world, the central problem with this receptacle of hot garbage that he rejects the combustible camp spirit of his characters in favour of a strained faux-seriousness, like he’s taking the role of teacher rather than film director. It’s even filmed in muddy brown tones with swatches of golden light, suggesting cosy fireside nostalgia and not desperate penury and grassroots revolution.
There’s no levity here, and any hint of fun is swiftly suppressed in a corny bid to mine the supposedly complex emotions of the situation. Sure, it’s not like we should’ve expected Roland Emmerich to suddenly make a Robert Altman film, but this is so buttoned-up, dewy-eyed and reductive that the air-punching climax leaves no lasting impact. It’s so lackadaisical and simplistic that it doesn’t even have the legs to stand as a midnight kitsch classic.
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