I want to believe that most movies are made with good intentions. Personally, I have a hard time believing that a group of people would spend a year (or more) of their short lives working on something for shallow or potentially even cynical reasons. Yes, we live in a very cynical world, as Jerry Maguire once said. I understand that people are not always driven by pure desires and good deeds. But when it comes to art, especially art that’s meant to be as emotionally engrossing as Good Joe Bell, the newest film from director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), I would believe — or, at least, hope — that the motivations behind this project were noble and good, as its dutiful title would suggest. Nevertheless, movies don’t give out prizes for good intentions.
There are no Oscars for Best Ambitions, last time I checked.
If the filmmakers behind Good Joe Bell were trying to make a heartfelt and reflective film about the ongoing dangers of homophobia in our fractured nation, I’m sorry to say that Good Joe Bell isn’t the movie they had in mind. What they’ve made instead is a formulaic, heavy-handed, and clumsily assembled melodrama lacking proper nuance and complexity, the sort of impartial film that makes you wonder whether they meant well at all.
The story follows our title character (Mark Wahlberg, who is also a producer), a shaggy, unkempt middle-aged Orgeon man traveling across the country on foot in an attempt to spread awareness of the dangers of bullying. He is followed by his son, Jadin (Reid Miller), a 15-year-old openly gay teenager who feeds his father comments and insults at a regular clip. But why is Joe Bell walking across this nation, anyhow? It’s ultimately not hard to guess, though the film takes its time before it tells you the reason. Wahlberg is meant to be our literal regular Joe, wandering these great plains searching for some sense of peace amidst his inner turmoil.
Such pain and anguish are hard to capture in a 90-minute drama. Emotions that wrestle so intensely in one’s restless soul are hard to communicate in proper, cinematic fashion. So it’s at least a little understandable to see Oscar-winning writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty (Brokeback Mountain) falling back on some familiar, character-based interactions between Joe’s troubled son and his concerned wife (Connie Britton) to try and explain the hard-fought feelings in conflict underneath Bell’s rough exterior. But the film’s clichéd story and graceless (even arguably offensive) handling of heavy thematics results in a movie that lacks the sensitivity, refrain, and emotional dexterity needed to approach this type of material.
When it comes to its depiction of homophobia, Good Joe Bell often feels like a ’90s movie, and not in an especially good way. While I understand that the film is meant to appeal to a broader, potentially even inconsiderate crowd, its inability to achieve authenticity and full sincerity makes for a movie with questionable purpose. I don’t want to believe the producers — which include Cary Joji Fukunaga in addition to Wahlberg and a team of other people — went into this movie with the sole intention of winning awards. I’d like to believe they genuinely wanted to make a soulful, emotionally resonant look at personal identity and the tragedies that arrive whenever people stay intolerant and inconsiderate of others. But what should be approached with careful consideration is often handled with force and a lack of precision. Whether deliberately or not, the movie comes across as manipulative and even sometimes negligent, which makes it not only poorly executed but also potentially discourteous. It’s bad enough to be a shallow look at a complicated subject matter. It’s worse to not give it proper, dutiful respect.
Ultimately, Good Joe Bell is a movie at odds with itself. On one side, you have Miller’s rich, poignant performance, which is layered, visceral, and by the end, raw. It’s outstanding character work at its best, and it certainly helps smooth out the movie’s roughest patches. And on the other side, you have Wahlberg. While his performance is far from bad, it’s hard not to wonder what his aim is with this movie and this role. Either intentionally or not, it’s not an especially welcoming or involving performance, as the actor will too often lean into his character’s hardened exterior without showing us too many moments of quiet grace and pained reflection.
It’s clear Wahlberg is a talented actor with the right director, as he’s been excellent in several past roles. But this performance is often lumbered and exasperated, making one wonder where the acting begins and Wahlberg’s reservations end. It’s odd that the moments where you believe Wahlberg the most here is when Joe becomes flustered and frustrated during his public speeches on behalf of his son. It’s perhaps unfair to assume there’s some truth behind Wahlberg’s own potential insecurities with this role, but it doesn’t often come across as confident compared to some of his previous work. It’s curious to see a more vulnerable side to Wahlberg, but because the movie itself isn’t willing to explore this more justly, any possible openness here can’t help but feel commercialized by what his performance is meant to communicate to possible awards voters rather than the character himself.
Good Joe Bell is based in truth, finding inspiration from recent headlines. It’s apparent that the goal was to take a real tragedy and attempt to turn it into something emotionally gripping and powerfully moving. But whether or not its intentions were earnest, the full weight and depth of these devastating real-life circumstances is cheapened whenever the film can’t achieve its ambitions. It’s hard to know, therefore, whether I should be kinder or harsher on the film based on its apparent shortcomings. As it stands, I can only judge a movie based on what’s presented in front of me on the screen. Alas, Good Joe Bell is a redemption story with too few redeeming qualities. Whether or not Wahlberg’s intentions were good-natured, he isn’t comfortable or careful enough as a performer or producer to carry the full gravity of this emotional premise. What we’re left with is a shamefully light and unsophisticated wannabe awards contender without the proper insight or reflection needed to make it work. Outside of Miller’s emotional drive, Good Joe Bell doesn’t find itself, resulting in a film that’s not very good at all.
Will Ashton is a Pop Culture writer for CinemaBlend and one of the co-hosts of Cinemaholics. He also co-hosts the It Ain’t Ogre ‘Til It’s Ogre podcast and considers himself a “Garfield Enthusiast.” For now.