There are few ways that a movie can more clearly annoy me than to start out perfectly mediocre and then reveal its true colors in a ham-fisted that makes it deserve all the wrath it receives. ‘Won’t Back Down’ should be a perfectly forgettable melodrama about mothers fighting to make an inner city school better for children, and it mostly is, except of course for the fact that it’s got the dark underbelly of being anti-union propaganda as well. As much as the film seems to love “teaching”, it really seems to hate teachers, which is an insane contradiction. Sure, some form of education reform is clearly needed in this country, but to suggest that the issue is the Teacher’s Union and their job security is to simplify the problem down to a political point, and I can’t give the movie a pass on that. Sure, Viola Davis is pretty good and Maggie Gyllenhaal isn’t bad, but co-writer/director Daniel Barnz is not a good filmmaker and the only thing you’re left with here is just a strong feeling of dissatisfaction at the way this is handled. I may not have been in love with ‘Waiting for Superman’ a few years ago, but that’s a masterpiece compared to this. I fully expect this movie to wind up on my Bottom 10 list at the end of the year, a far cry from the Oscar potential originally discussed earlier on this year…
Ostensively an inspirational drama about how our schools are failing our children, the film follows mothers Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) and Nona Alberts (Davis) as they decide to help improve a school on their own. Jamie is a working mother who has her daughter Malia in public school after private school no longer is an option. She wants her kid to be in Nona’s class, since that’s the better one and would benefit Malia, especially since her current teach apparently is more interested in texting than educating. The school doesn’t really want to help out Jamie, so with Nona’s help, she seeks to invoke a “fail-safe” law on the books that would take the school out of the grasp of the supposedly evil Teacher’s union and transform it into a Charter school. Of course, as soon as Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) of the union finds out about it, its political war between the parents and the apparently greedy and incompetent teachers. A better movie could have been made here, but politics supersede common sense, competent filmmaking, and just any semblance of enjoyment.
The one thing in this movie’s favor is its acting, which isn’t spectacular but is better than the final product deserves. Maggie Gyllenhaal has been far better before, and in fact has been much better playing a single mother, but she doesn’t embarrass herself or anything here. The part is pretty standard spunky heroine stuff, so all Gyllenhaal can try to do is elevate the material. She’s not able to do that, but she’s hardly terrible or anything. Viola Davis was once upon a time speculated on as a potential Oscar nominee here, but while good, isn’t nearly on that level here. She does her best to make the character feel real, but the script does her absolutely no favors. Holly Hunter isn’t given much to do, but she gives it the old college try. As for the other supporting players, Oscar Isaac is absolutely wasted, while Rosie Perez and Ving Rhames barely register. Other actors and actresses in the film include Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, and Bill Nunn. This is all about Gyllenhaal and Davis in terms of acting, but even they’re only acceptable, not extraordinary.
Daniel Barnz is now 0 for 3 in my book as a filmmaker, with this outing being the worst of the bunch yet. He’s showing no signs of improvement, so perhaps I’m about done with his work. Barnz’s direction is paint by numbers, offering no sense of how to capture his actors, with no interest in proper pacing, and without anything other than an anti-union agenda. I may be pro unionization, but I’m more anti bad movies, and he’s directed a bad one here. To be fair, his script is even worse and perhaps can partly be blamed to some degree on co-writer Brin Hill as well, but Barnz is still beyond saving here. There’s no subtlety in their screenplay and they must think they’re making a movie of the week, considering the effort on display. The film runs a good 20 minutes too long, but by the second half you’ll have checked out by then. Garbage like this isn’t worth spending too much time on.
I really disliked ‘Won’t Back Down’ for a number of reasons, but the biggest one to me is how it takes a worthwhile issue and reduces it to just propaganda and surrounds it with bad filmmaking. That’s a cardinal sin to me, and Daniel Barnz and company repeatedly sin here. Even huge Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis fans should steer clear of this, since it’s really just porous on almost all levels. Some worthwhile acting saves it from the absolute bottom of the barrel, but there still are only a handful of worse films in 2012 to me. That should tell you something…
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Tags: Daniel Barnz, Entertainment/Culture, Holly Hunter, Maggie Gyllenhaal, oscar isaac, Viola Davis