Once upon a time, something like Joe Bell would have been considered brave and easy Oscar fair. Luckily, both the Academy and also filmmaking/Hollywood in general has moved beyond that. Now, that isn’t to say that a movie can’t tell a story of acceptance by focusing on someone who hasn’t seen the light yet. Of course it can. However, in the case of Joe Bell, it’s so clearly misguided in its focus that you spend most of the film wishing the title was Jadin Bell, or really just made completely differently. The intentions here are clearly noble ones, but the execution leaves it as a middle of the road slog.
Joe Bell is as formulaic as it gets. It wants to be a tearjerker and an inspirational story, but nothing here ever gets you to that moment. 30 years ago, just the subject matter might have done some of the heavy lifting, but here, more is needed. Alas, we get less, instead of more, and the movie suffers greatly. Some solid acting saves it from being a total loss, but any awards aspirations certainly have flown out the door.
Mild spoiler alert follows, but the Trailers have already spoiled it for you. Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) is walking across America, preaching a message of tolerance. Once a more bigoted man, he struggled to deal with his teenage son Jadin (Reid Miller) coming out as gay. He says he loves him and supports him, but actions speak louder than words, and both Jadin, as well as Joe’s wife Lola (Connie Britton) notice he’s lacking in that department. The harder it gets for Jadin, the more silent Joe stayed.
As Joe walks, he talks to his son. They debate the purpose of his trek, as well as the effectiveness of his message. Now, this mission, with his teen son by his side, might be a way for the two to finally connect, but it’s coming too little, too late, as Jadin has recently committed suicide after the abuse became too much. Yes, Joe is speaking to a ghost/figment of his imagination, and even then, he’s barely changed.
Mark Wahlberg certainly saw this as a prestige grab for awards attention, but he’s outshined easily by Reid Miller. Now, Wahlberg is fine here, if somewhat bland, but Miller is a ray of light in the picture. Had the focus been on him, with his conflicted father in the background, Joe Bell might have had something. That’s not the case, however, and we’re left wanting much more. Connie Britton is wasted, while Gary Sinise shows up in a small supporting role and actually has one of the more heartfelt moments in the movie.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green is better than this. So are writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who have Oscars on their mantle for Brokeback Mountain. So, what happened here? It really feels like every decision made here tamped down any edge or point of view that the picture might have had. Green has made movies like that before, notably Monsters and Men. Here, it just plays it safe, with Ossana and McMurtry content to just tell the dullest version of the story possible.
Once called Good Joe Bell, Joe Bell dropped “good” from its title after a poor showing last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. They were on to something. I can’t totally dismiss the movie since the ambitions and intentions are pure. It’s just the lacking of much in the way of execution that makes this a slog. Remove Miller and this is a much tougher watch. Some will find it more offensive than I did, certainly, but we can all agree on this much…it’s a misfire.