Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mud (2012) ***1/2

One thing you can count on is that when Hollywood sets a movie in Arkansas, it isn't going to be about lawyers, or university professors, or company executives. It'll be about backwoods, country-talking, toothless rednecks. “Mud” is no exception. That's my only real complaint about “Mud,” however. It's a funny, strangely entertaining coming-of-age tale.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are a couple of 13-year-old boys whose lives are wrapped up with the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the Arkansas delta. Everything in their lives is covered in mud, but the movie is named for a drifter (Matthew McConaughey) they meet on an island in the river. The boys sneak out to the island to check out a boat that has been lodged in a tree by floods. They find Mud living in it, and he ropes them into his world of superstition and romance. Mud is hiding out, waiting for a chance to meet up with his trashy girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). The boys, especially Ellis,can't help but be impressed by such a romantic situation. They help Mud out, even when doing so runs them afoul of the law and a gang of bounty-hunters.

I like that “Mud” isn't about any big issue or theme. It's just a good story, well-told. Matthew McConaughey has fully left behind his lightweight, pretty-boy rep. He does take off his shirt in “Mud,” but he also sports bad teeth, looking as greasy and dirty as anyone should hiding out on an island in the summer. Equally fearless is Reese Witherspoon as Mud's trampy girlfriend, Juniper. She trashes up even better than Blake Lively did in “The Town.” It's the teen actors who really impress, however, especially Tye Sheridan. Sheridan only had one movie role before “Mud,” playing in Terence Malick's “Tree of Life,” which is not a bad start, artistically. Jacob Lofland had even less experience. “Mud” was his first movie role; he was chosen because he is an Arkansas boy who knows how to ride a motorbike and drive a boat. Both actors have been working steadily since.

It's true that “Mud” is overly optimistic, and certainly predictable, but the humor of the movie makes up for any weaknesses of story. The boys riding around town trying to sell fish, Ellis's fumbling attempts at romance, and Neckbone's wetsuit-wearing uncle are all comedy gold! It's also a testimony to how much love, or the lack of it, can mess you up. It's like the song says, “Love is like oxygen. You get too much, you get too high. Not enough, and you're gonna die.”

3.5 stars out of 5

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