STUDIO: Lions Gate

MSRP: $19.98


RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

• Finding Tenderness: Bringing the Novel to the Screen

The Pitch

Anti-depressants are bad.  So is pedophilia.  And murder.  And being a vegetable.  Let’s put them all into one movie so it’ll be extra good!

The Humans

Starring Russell Crowe, Jon Foster, Sophie Traub, Laura Dern
Written by Emil Stern, based on a novel by Robert Cormier
Directed by John Polson

The Nutshell

When Eric (Foster) gets released from prison, Lt. Cristofuoro (Crowe) is there to greet him and remind him that he will be watching his every move.  You see, Eric slaughtered both of his parents a couple years ago but was exonerated of the charges once he turned 18 because he was on anti-depressants at the time, which altered his personality. (Scientologists shake their heads and say “I told you so.”) Once out, Eric decides to drive across the state of New York to visit a girl that he saw once, briefly, while in the slammer.  On the way, he’s joined by Lori (Traub), a completely different troubled 16-year-old girl who is even more obsessed with Eric than Cristofuoro.  Brooding, crying, and lots of talking ensue.

“Jesus.  I just had the worst nightmare.  I dreamt that I was back at the beginning of my career, making crap movies for a few bucks a day just hoping I’d get my brea-“
“Yo, Russ!  We’re ready for your crying scene!”

The Lowdown

It’s hard to write about completely forgettable movies.  They’re not so bad that you have a laundry list of gigantic plot holes, laughable acting, and incompetent shot framing.  Those movies are easy to tear apart.  The thing about forgettable movies is that you never get involved enough with the story to care, even when they outright suck.

Such is the sad plight of Tenderness, which plays out as your stereotypical indie movie that one would’ve expected to find back in the early 2000s.  You’ve got your introverted, emotionless kid who may or may not be a cold-blooded murderer at heart.  And your damaged, teenage girl coming from a dysfunctional home who likes herself some bad boys.  And an obsessed, tortured cop who is grieving over his wife who lies in a vegetative state.  Each one on their own would be fodder enough for a small, character-driven flick — but, we get all three in this one!  Should be thrice as good then, right?

Not quite.

Dear Ridley: please, for the love of God, never, EVER stop making movies.  And never die.  Love always, The Crowe.

One of the rules of screenwriting and storytelling in general is that you only get one major “what if” before you risk losing your audience.  People are willing to suspend their disbelief once, and in a big way, to establish the rules of the world they’re going into. But after that, you’d better stick within those guidelines otherwise there’s no more believability.  That’s how we can get sucked into movies about people turning into werewolves, but not necessarily movies about people turning into werewolves who also can travel through time.  (Although, please someone make that movie because I’d be there in a heartbeat.)

Usually this ends up being more of an issue with high-concept movies, because by definition they require us to swallow a larger pill off the bat.  But, these smaller, character-based flicks can jump the shark, too, if they’re not careful.  In the case of Tenderness, it’s not so much about the plot — a cop stalking a just-released convicted killer out of obsession isn’t much of a stretch — but, it’s about the motivations of the characters.  And my main issue with this movie is with the entire character of Lori, who ends up being our guide into this world.

Damn, that chick from Scrubs sure took a turn for the worse after cancellation.  Yeesh.  Oh, and something about a teenage murderer, blah blah blah.

Lori is a 16-year-old girl whose mother has always picked the wrong men to date.  Not just like, “oh, we don’t quite click,” wrong either.  We’re talking child molester, total pieces of shit kind.  As a result, which you might expect, Lori doesn’t end up seeking out the healthiest of relationships.  Which I suppose explains why she becomes obsessed with Eric, the 18-year-old who spent time in juvy for killing his parents but gets his entire record expunged because he had been on anti-depressants at the time and is now free to re-enter society.  I suppose the “I was on prescribed mind-altering drugs” is the new insanity plea for the medicated generation.

Backstory-wise, this is fine and I buy it.  The problem is the entire set up.  The first fifteen to twenty minutes of the movie is essentially a montage.  Montages are great, especially for ’80s action comedies, but even then they didn’t start movies with them.  You need some meaty scenes in the beginning to set up the conflict through action, not reading over a character’s shoulder, which is exactly how we learn about Eric while Lt. Cristofuoro (Crowe) reads over his book of newspaper clippings for the umpteenth time in a bar.  I’m sure the idea here was to show, rather than tell, which is the goal of the cinematic arts, but while it may seem like showing us a piece of paper is better than just telling us through expositive dialogue, it’s not.  At least in the latter situation, you can get creative and let us get to know the story along with characters through their voices, accents, language, and mannerisms which all help pull us into the movie.  Just showing us something to read is merely another form of lazy exposition.

Sure, I smoked some fake cigarettes back in the day.  Who hasn’t?  But, I did NOT inhale.

And that lack of true character development — sure, the characters all have their full arcs by the end as is required by the standard, three-act screenplay rules — is what causes the suspension of disbelief to get smashed to bits.  When you don’t establish the characters well enough in the beginning, nothing they do feels real.  In the case of Lori, everything can be blamed on the fact that she’s a messed-up kid because her mom’s latest boyfriend raped her.  That means we should just accept that she’s obsessed with a known killer, forces her way into his life, hops along with him on his road trip unannounced and uninvited, is completely oblivious to the fact that he’s tried to kill her and should take the fact that he wants her to just leave – alive – as a strong hint that she’s not safe, breaks into creepy, abandoned mobile homes, cracks wise about an Asian police officer, and then even asks Eric to kill her. 

At some point, she just stopped being a real person to me and only existed as a fictional character in this movie whose sole role was to advance the plot toward some profound statement about death and the inner workings of the mind of a murderer.  And once that happened, the movie fell apart completely for me.  I couldn’t latch onto Eric because his character is emotionless by nature — which is neither chilling nor pathetic.  Just boring.  And I couldn’t identify with Lt. Cristofuoro (whose name we never hear, by the way, so you only get to know his name by the end credits), either, because we never get to know him.  His wife lies unresponsive in a hospital bed for reasons unknown and unrelated to everything else happening in the movie, yet here he is, obsessed with Eric and determined to catch him in another murderous moment.

You know, on second thought, maybe the guy does need some prescription medicine after all.

In the end, John gets what he wants, but in a way unexpected to everyone involved except for Lori.  But since I’d already checked out with regard to Lori being the driving force of the movie, the finale carried no emotional weight for me whatsoever.  Which is too bad because on paper, I think it just might have been pretty good.

The Package

The movie is shot well enough.  It’s perfectly fine to look at — nice outdoor shots and well lit scenes.  The only extra feature you’ll find is the short featurette Finding Tenderness: Bringing the Novel to the Screen, where the producers pat themselves on the back for being able to get this incredible director who finally was able to see the movie their way.  Makes you wonder if he was just the only decent director who would shoot the movie as they saw fit, no questions asked.  Also, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that he was friends with Russell Crowe.  If you want to know the level of talent we’re dealing with here behind the scenes, enjoy the part of this behind-the-scenes where actor Jon Foster says that director John Polson gave him this direction during a diner scene: “Eat the burger like you’re eating her flesh.”  And that just about sums it up.

4.9 out of 10

I know what would’ve made this movie way better:  3D