Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” opens Friday with little fanfare, nearly forgotten in the rush by Oscarnosticators to crown “A Star is Born” or “Roma” movie of the year.
And yet, Clint, who is 88, gets the last laugh. “The Mule” is funny and sad, with terrific performances, a strong central story, and high commercial appeal. If only anyone had seen it before the awards marathon…But still, there’s time for the Academy Awards, and I urge all the pundits and voters to take “The Mule” seriously.
Clint plays Earl Stone– this is inspired by the New York Times Magazine article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick. Nick Schenck wrote the screenplay. A bad father and husband, Earl (Leo Sharp in real life) is the life of the party but has always neglected his family. He’s estranged from his daughter (played very well by his real daughter, Alison Eastwood) and his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest in a Best Supporting worthy performance). He’s never been a provider, and as we meet him he’s being foreclosed on.
With his belongings packed into his truck, a down on his luck Earl is approached to be a drug mule for “the cartel” because he loves to drive and needs the money. He will move drugs between his home in Illinois and Mexico. Earl is the perfect decoy since no one will take an old man seriously. His main contact is played (with bemusement) by Ignacio Serrcichio, who works for a drug lord (Andy Garcia). Clifton Collins, Jr. turns up later as Garcia’s successor. Meanwhile, DEA agents are trailing Earl– specifically Bradley Cooper and his boss, Laurence Fishburne.
Clint’s Earl is wily and funny. He’s a little like Clint’s character in “Gran Torino,” not a true racist but more of a curmudgeon who doesn’t stop himself from using the N word at least once until he is upbraided. Earl is not a caricature nor is he a meant to be a joke. Eastwood is sly and not stupid, by any means. He sees Earl as a rebuffer of all people, and certainly a questioner of authority– but also one with street smarts. Earl is a quick study. He learns fast, which is how he’s survived.
Eastwood and Schenck were also smart to build quite a bit of self-effacing humor into Earl. So Clint is winking at the audience a little bit, too. And then there’s Eastwood’s direction. There’s a lot of air in “The Mule.” You’re seeing a master at work. He’s in no hurry but then again, he’s got everyone on their toes. His scenes with Cooper and Serricchio are a pleasure.
So are Clint’s scenes with Dianne Wiest. She has two Oscars and nothing to prove. But Wiest finds a place for her Mary, and by the time she exits the stage you’ve come to love her. Clint always installs strong actresses as points of reference. I’ll bet he’s sorry he waited so long to play with Wiest.
Someone on the net made a crack yesterday about the music in “The Mule” saying it was the best thing about the movie– Arturo Sandoval composed the score. Sure, it’s terrific. I also loved the Toby Keith song at the end– and the ending itself is enhanced by it. It just fits perfectly, let’s see it join “Shallow” and “I’ll Fight” and the Poppins song at the Oscars.
I know that when I called Malpaso Productions two weeks ago, they said they’d just finished post-production. “The Mule” comes late to our little game. But audiences are going to love it. And critics should, too. Clint Eastwood makes it look easy. It’s not. It takes a lot of work to pull off this sleight of hand. We should never take it for granted.