Somehow, director Roland Emmerich has made a movie even less historically accurate than "10,000 BC," the one depicting Egyptian-style pyramids being constructed with the help of woolly mammoths.
But facts are not the problem with "Stonewall." This is not a documentary, and it owes no one any kind of objectivity or documentary truth on its subject, only a vivid and persuasive fictionalized version of events.
The real problem is that its narrative inventions embrace every wrong cliche, from the first word to the last speech of Jon Robin Baitz’s screenplay and in the desperate lack of nuance afflicting nearly every performance. Emmerich, best known for the shamelessly enjoyable digital-effects "schlockbusters" "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," begins each new scene in "Stonewall" with the knob at 11. He hammers the material home in a blunt, screechy style that falsifies even the supporting characters who really were there, in and around the gay bar run by the mob, raided once too often by the police and destined for gay-liberation and civil rights immortality.
Opens Friday at Kahala 8
Obama referenced the Stonewall Inn riots of late June 1969 in his second inaugural address. Now we have Emmerich’s well-meaning but hopelessly screwy melodrama to add to the Stonewall legacy.
Baitz has written some very good plays, for the record, "The Substance of Fire" and "Three Hotels" among them. In "Stonewall" he hangs the story, based on Emmerich’s outline, on the coming-out saga of incoming Columbia University freshman Danny, a fictional hunk (played by Jeremy Irvine of "War Horse") who flees small-town Indiana life in the closet for the exotic streets of Greenwich Village. "Here we live, here we love. … This is the place for self-expression!" as the Comden and Green lyric put it in "Wonderful Town."
Danny’s a newcomer among the community of homeless "scare queens" (drag queens without money, living on or very near the streets) who offer various forms of solace and comfort. Jonny Beauchamp plays Ray/Ramona, his lovelorn bestie; Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the stealthy, vaguely predatory gay rights activist who becomes Danny’s lover and whose apartment overlooks the Stonewall Inn. Otoja Abit takes on one of the script’s real-life players, transgender drag queen Marsha P. Johnson, whom many credit with being the first to fight back at the club-wielding police outside the Stonewall Inn. (Hardly any photographic evidence exists from that night.)
In the Indiana scenes, with Danny and the star quarterback (Karl Glusman) discovering their true feelings together in shame, "Stonewall" plays like a William Inge knockoff, right down to the bookish, progressive little sister (played by Joey King) straight out of "Picnic." Once Danny arrives in Manhattan, he transforms into a bland conduit for mainstream — i.e., straight — audiences to experience this strange new world of overacting stereotypes. "Judy just died," says Beauchamp’s Ray at one point. "Judy who?" responds Irvine’s Danny, flatly.
The Judy Garland funeral stoked the anger and grief underneath the clashes, yet because "Stonewall" turns everyone into a sentimental or suffocating "type" instead of a dimensional character, the results are sheer noise. Baitz has a way of stating the obvious here; when one key character starts monologuing about life in a "society hating and oppressing us for being gay," it doesn’t sound like human speech spoken in the heat of an inflammatory moment.
Review by Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune