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Is the MPAA the Biggest Liar of Them All?

By Jed Horne

staff writer

Directed by Michael Cuesta

Written by Stephen M. Ryder, Michael Cuesta and Gerald Cuesta

Starring Brian Cox, Paul Franklin Dano, Billy Kay and Bruce Altman

Rated NC-17

Lot 47 films, darlings of the Sundance Festival and indie-promoters extraordinaire, have complimented an already impressive record of discovering brilliant young directors with L.I.E., an uneven but nonetheless brilliant first-time effort by director Michael Cuesta. In a market increasingly dominated by semi-indie distributors like (Disney-owned) Miramax, which peaked after it’s “discovery” of the since faded Quentin Tarantino, it is refreshing to find a company that has been pioneering new talent for almost twenty years. This all began, incidentally, with the debut of one of my favorite directors, Jim Jarmusch, and his brilliantly subversive film, Stranger than Paradise.

Unlike Lot 47, however, L.I.E. (a slightly blunt acronym and metaphorical reference to the Long Island Expressway) gets off to a shaky start. Revisiting the well-worn path of suburban alienation (already very capably handled by the likes of Todd Solondz), protagonist Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano) begins the film with a dubious observation about the film’s namesake, “You got your lanes going east, your lanes going west, and your lanes going straight to Hell.” Granted, the film’s central metaphor is down for the count after that one, probably the most ill-advised line I’ve heard in an otherwise serious script in a while. But what L.I.E. is lacking in symbolism it quickly makes up for with an emotional depth and a grasp of nuance sorely lacking in other films of the same genre.

Howie Blitzer is a poster child for suburban delinquency: the uninvolved father (Bruce Altman), the bad-seed friend Gary (Billy Kay, whose cinematic credits include playing the baby in Three Men and a Baby), and the dippy guidance counselor pile on the dysfunction with a sense of humor reminiscent of earlier stabs at the same subject. Howie’s dirty little secret is his yen for the older, badder, and hipper Gary, who moonlights as a gigolo for older men along the side of the expressway. But, alas, in a sort of anti-Romeo and Juliet, it’s not an overly involved family that keeps these two apart, but their own alienation from themselves. When Gary skips town and his dad is thrown in jail, Howie is forced to confront his own inner demons, as well as those of his new acquaintance/father-figure/romantic interest, ex-Marine Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox).

Sound unprecedented? It’s not like pedophilia is a new topic without it, we wouldn’t have Taxi Driver, or American Beauty, just to name a few of the movies that have dealt intelligently with a deservedly controversial subject.

What is unprecedented, thanks to a flawless performance by Brian Cox, is the depth of character displayed by this particular pedophile. L.I.E.’s coup is not the territory it treads -- thematically and stylistically, it comes across as a slightly-less polished redux of American Beauty. What L.I.E. does offer is one of the least judgmental cinematic visions I’ve seen in a long time. The romantic involvement between Howie and Big John is amazingly well scripted. Howie, insecure and inexperienced in his sexuality, is a Shakespearean foil for Big John’s sincere self-loathing over his own out-of-control passions. And where American Beauty is menacingly judgmental, L.I.E. does a better job of finding beauty in dysfunction, and is less ashamed to push the envelope. The moment of truth for Howie and John is a poignant (and well shot) scene where John shaves Howie’s face with a straight razor. Kevin Spacey, eat your heart out.

The biggest question about this movie is the rating, as the MPAA categorically refuses, as a matter of policy, to give reasons for NC-17 classification. L.I.E. is peculiarly lacking in the trademarks of other movies slapped with this box-office kiss of death. And it’s not like the subject matter is particularly original, either. If anything, this movie is a demonstration of how out of touch the MPAA is with conventional morality, and, if consistency is any benchmark, with itself.