THE YARDS directed by James Gray, written by Gray and Matthew Reeves, produced by Kerry Orent, Paul Webster and Nick Wechsler, with Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, James Caan and Ellen Burstyn. 115 minutes. An Industry Entertainment/Miramax production. A Miramax release through Alliance-Atlantis films. Opens Friday (February 2). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 65. Rating: NN james gray wants to be sidney Lumet, but he doesn't have the juice.His two films as writer-director, Little Odessa and The Yards, both delve into the world of New York crime.
Where Lumet gives his characters tremendous energy and tends to point his actors at the top and say "Go over it," Gray seems mired in a funk, as if everyone were having a moral crisis at the same time. And he lights scenes as if he were trying to pay his actors by scrimping on the electric bill.
The Yards, which premiered at Cannes last year, deals with the corrupt inner workings of the subway business -- paid-off commissioners, corporate war, and the spectacle of a single honest man forced to overcome the wall of silence imposed by family loyalty.
Sounds hot, but Gray doesn't even liven up during a fight in a nightclub. And he's taken his female lead, Charlize Theron, and drabbed her down with black hair and really bad nail polish, as if that's going to reduce her megawattage.
Mark Wahlberg's Leo comes home from a stretch in jail for car theft and is immediately sucked into the high-powered, cash-driven world of Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), who works for Leo's uncle (James Caan), the owner of a big subway repair operation who uses Willie as a political fixer. Bad things happen, there's a murder, and suddenly the cops -- and everyone else -- are looking for Leo.
He can't run away, though, because his mom (Ellen Burstyn) is sick, and he can't betray Willie, because Willie's his childhood best friend. The cast struggles heroically with this material and its familiarity, but aside from Phoenix, who gives the best of his many performances last year, they're stuck in the film's visual mire and conventional scripting.