Combustible Celluloid
With: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinise, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Igby Rigney, Coral Chambers, Scout Smith, David H. Stevens, Blake Barlow, Charles Halford
Written by: Diana Ossana, Larry McMurtry
Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green
MPAA Rating: R for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material, and teen partying
Running Time: 94
Date: 07/23/2021

Joe Bell (2021)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Bell' Stepper

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A movie with important things to say and not much clue as to how to say them, this virtuous drama might have worked if not for an unforgivable story device, and an unsatisfying late-movie roadblock.

Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) is seen walking along the highways of America, accompanied by his son Jadin (Reid Miller). Joe is determined to spread a message of tolerance and kindness after the merciless treatment of Jadin, who identifies as gay, at the hands of bullies. Flashbacks tell the beginnings of the story, from Jadin's coming out to his joining the high school cheerleading squad, and up to the tragic event that caused Joe to hit the road. But what will Joe really discover out there in the middle of the country?

Written, shockingly, by the Brokeback Mountain team of Diana Ossana and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, Joe Bell (formerly titled Good Joe Bell) feels like amateur hour. It's admittedly difficult, and certainly unfair, to describe the movie's two slap-in-the-face moments without disrespecting the movie's noble efforts to tell its timely and crucial story, but it's a wonder how these two experts could have settled for such aggravating dramatic devices.

The movie definitely has its good moments, such as watching Joe connect with his son, or finding solace on the road with a group of drag queens or an understanding sheriff (Gary Sinise). Joe's little speeches to high schools and other community groups are weirdly unmoving, however, and it's odd to think that the movie Joe Bell is as clumsy at communicating its message as is the character.

Ultimately, it seems as if the filmmakers never decided what — or whom — their movie was actually supposed to be about. With a little more streamlining, a great movie could have been told from this story, but this movie is not it.

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