Clint Eastwood pulls one last bait and switch with his latest — perhaps last — picture, “The Mule.”
From the tenor of the trailers and TV commercials, we gather that he’s directed and stars in a drug trade thriller — tense, guilt-ridden, an old man’s late life understanding of remorse.
Actually this drama, inspired by a true story, is Eastwood’s most whimsical picture in years. It’s about a 90 year-old’s dalliance in the drug trade, driving (ever so carefully) cocaine from El Paso to Chicago, collecting big paydays, shrugging off threats and evidence that he’s dealing with deadly people in a business bathed in death.
We know it’s going to turn dark. Nick Schenk’s cutesy, logic-straining script (aided and abetted by Eastwood’s handling of it) has a hard time making that turn. But Clint twinkles, old-man-shuffles and jokes his way through it like a guy who never gave up his career of comedies with an orangutan. He makes it entertaining and lets the moral lessons about generational foibles, family and the power of guilt go down easily.
Earl Stone has made his Peoria, Illinois living in the soil — raising, competing and selling day lilies. As a 2007 prologue makes clear, he’s most at home with the flowers and his fellow day lily traders — conventions, contests, charming the ladies who buy his hothouse flowers.
“I love’em,” he confesses at one point. “They’re worth all the time and attention.”
So was his family. That 2007 prologue has a second theater of action. His daughter (Alison Eastwood) is getting married. And his bitter ex-wife (Oscar winner Dianne Wiest) is quick to remind her that “He missed your baptism” and every thing that came after it. Why would he change now?
Daughter Iris never forgave him, any more than ex-wife Mary did. But granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is wholly charmed and full of hope for the old man.
Because 17 years later, the “damned Internet” has killed his business, put his house in foreclosure and made him — seemingly — more attentive to family. Mary, Iris and Iris’s husband aren’t falling for this abandonment of “work comes first.” But Ginny, on her own wedding day, is more forgiving.
That wedding is where elderly, down-on-his-luck Earl meets a guy who knows a guy. And he’s impressed that Earl has an ancient Ford pickup and a perfect driving record. His “friends” might have some work for him.
Earl doesn’t let the first automatic weapon he sees waved around by the tattooed cartel thugs scare him off. That’s Eastwood’s most adorable wrinkle in this very old man. Nothing rattles him. Even threats, jabbing a pistol in his rib cage, don’t phase him. Or maybe it’s that the threats don’t register.
As the drug runs, delineated by intertitles — “First Run,” “Third Run,” etc. — add up, the Mexicans, particularly Emilio (Robert Lasardo, type cast but spot on) and Bald Rob (Noel Gugliemi) let themselves get tickled by the codger who dodges the cops for them. They indulge his eccentricities, school him on cell phones and “burner” phones. They call him “viejito” and “abuelito.”
Earl moseys down the back roads, stops to help a couple of Prius-driving “Negros” learn how to change a tire, buys a fancy Lincoln pickup and starts throwing money around — at his family, his broke VFW post. And then the Big Boss (Andy Garcia, “cute” too) gives him “a minder.” Tense, no-nonsense Julio (Ignacio Serricchio) is a signal that things are about to get darker, that Earl’s pleasant demeanor towards his “beaners” (unfiltered racism makes an appearance) is going to be tested.
This is the story we care about. The one we’re never given a reason to, the one that should add urgency to the “thriller” nature of “The Mule,” is law enforcement — the patient, ponderous Feds, led by Laurence Fishburne and his field agents (Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña) trying to stop up this coke pipeline.
Eastwood lets his film stop — repeatedly — to catch up on their efforts to find out who is running all this coke into Chicago. These interruptions are never more than mildly diverting, and considering the higher (murderous) stakes of the cartel, we never for a second consider law enforcement the scariest of Earl’s problems.
Not that he notices. He’s just singing along to “I’ve Been Every Where, Man” on the truck radio, stopping at the home of “the best pulled pork sandwich” in the country, his favorite small town motels where his favorite small town hookers are close by.
A running gag — the “mañana” Mexicans, culturally stereotyped as lazy and slow, are the ones in a hurry, the ones freaking out at Earl’s dawdling, his “family” delays. He’s constantly lecturing Julio to “slow down.”
Shoehorned in? A police stop of an innocent man who freaks out and does a three minute bit on how “This is the most dangerous five minutes of my life,” a brown man stopped by a trigger-happy generation of mostly white cops. Also jammed in? “I want to meet this ‘Tata,'” (their name for Earl), says the Big Boss (Garcia). Couple of old guys joshing and joking around a Mexican drug lord’s mansion.
“Who’d you have to kill to get a place like this?”
No drug lord would want to meet a mule. Kind of defeats the purpose of distancing yourself from drug trafficking by HIRING a mule.
But damned if old Clint doesn’t keep this amiable, amoral tale shuffling along, damned if he doesn’t show us the human cost — not so much of the drug trade, but of a life lived for “work” instead of family.
“The Mule” is not one of Eastwood’s greats, but it does hold your interest and keep you tickled, almost from first to last. That’s more than you can say for what could have been his “last” film, “The 15:17 to Paris.” And if this is his curtain call, a grinning, goofy drug smuggling grandpa isn’t a bad way to be remembered.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Dianne Wiest, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Laurence Fishburne, Ignacio Serracchio, Taissa Farmiga, Alison Eastwood, Andy Garcia, Clifton Collins Jr
Credits: Directed by Clint Eastwood, script by Nick Schenk. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 1:56