Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a terrible name for a film. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. A clunky mouthful, the title is culled directly from the celebrated novel of the same name from Ben Fountain, who won several novelist awards for his work including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, but that doesn’t mean that such a jargony mouthful needed to remain in place when translated to film. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad name comes under fire again when you realize that Billy Lynn doesn’t really walk all that much, he kinda just plops down in his Dallas Cowboy stadium seat and remembers exchanging “I Love You’s” with Vin Diesel until it’s his chance to perform with Destiny’s Child. If the previous sentence didn’t make a lick of sense, welcome to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (ugh, that name) is, in essence, a failed experiment. Filmed in an unprecedented 120 frames per second in 3D at 4K (Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is the only other film to use high frame rate technology and even still only shot at 48 frames per second compared to the tradition 24) visionary director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) foresaw a filmic translation of the film that would immerse the viewer in the perspective of its main character. One that would see the horror of post traumatic stress first-hand, almost as if within his POV. One that would allow the viewer to breathe through the character, to feel themselves firmly inside his skin. That noble intention was swatted like a gnat when theaters across the globe proved unable to project the “real” version of the film. So remove the most intriguing element of a film and what are we left with? A lame-brained, cockeyed melodrama that is as frustrating as the script is head-smackingly dumb.
That the script – which ostensibly takes place over a single day, though is frequently interrupted by flashbacks – is a mess shouldn’t be too surprising. After longtime Lee collaborator James Schamus went off to direct an infinitely superior film about dignity, duty and delinquency (seriously, see Indignation over this 100 times), Jean-Christophe Castelli (who worked as an aid to Schamus on multiple projects) was taped to pen his first script. The product reeks of freshman status. His adaptation is clunky and strange, chock full of face-palmingly embarrassing dialogue and choppy scene arrangement. It is quite frankly a supermoon-sized blight that drags the film down like a barnacle-crusted anchor.
At the forefront, newcomer Joe Alywn is Billy, a 19-year old hero returned from Iraq to do a little PR tour. Alywn is fine in the role – capable seems a fine description – but the moral uncertainly the character is asked to project seems to overwhelm the fresh-faced actor at times. Billy (and by his comrades in the Bravo unit) is experiencing his 15-minutes of fame after a video of him rushing to the aid of his fallen commander (Diesel) has gone viral. Or whatever the 2002 equivalent of viral was. Newsworthy? I digress.
Accosted on all sides by people who want to take advantage of his position in the limelight or just to genuinely help him out – including Chris Tucker as a fast-talking but I guess also sincere (?) Hollywood agent trying to sell the rights to his story, Steve Martin as a patriotic football baron cozying up to the platoon with greedy ulterior motives, Mackenzie Leigh as an adorable Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who goes instantly ga-ga over the soldier in question and Kristen Stewart as his scarred-up kid sister pleading with him to seek an honorable discharge – Billy is in a pickle. Who he can trust and how to take stock and move forward become the threads that attempt to propel his story forward. That and losing his virginity.
Instead of propelling though, every sidetrack – either in real time or to the past – feels tangential. There is no center driving the narrative forward. Just a gaggle of seats which our troops abscond from and return to every now and then. No single plot point is particularly interesting nor do they offer anything nuanced or new to say about the very real struggle that soldiers encounter upon their return home. Especially those who have been deemed heroes.
Flashes of PDST crop up when Bravo unit, led by Garrett Hedlund’s nondescript Sergeant Dime, are subjected to the dizzying fireworks show that accompanies Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle’s poppy performance. While seated – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk ironically features a lot more sitting than it does walking – Beau Knapp’s violently inclined Crack takes on a lippy redneck in what might be the best scene of the film. It’s perhaps the only moment that rings of authenticity and that sucks you into the very real emotional danger that these soldiers face. The confrontations – of which there are many – eventually leads to a full on brawl with security that becomes a somewhat major plot point all while making absolutely zero sense.
Lee frames shots in such a way that one can imagine what he is going for, should the technology to actually show his vision be available, but one does not go to the theater to make guesswork of the director’s intentions. Without the ability to actually show the work as it was intended to be seen, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will remain a major flub in a director’s impressive oeuvre; a snoozy wartime meditation that’s cheesy, poorly written and improbably light on impact.
CONCLUSION: There may be redeeming aspects in ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ but they are few and far between. As it stands, Ang Lee’s latest experiment is by and large a flat out failure, lead by cockamamie dialogue, a tiresome, standstill plot and visual inventiveness that was not to be. Next!