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Good acting done in by unbelievable script

Review: 'Monster's Ball' a disappointing film

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- If misery really does love company, it should make a concerted effort to see "Monster's Ball," a vastly overpraised study of racism that's so bleak, even its sex scenes are a drag.

Of course, you shouldn't avoid a picture simply because it's depressing. But the script, by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, is so wanting in back story that the main characters' motivations are almost impossible to fathom. Although director Marc Forster pulls decent performances from both Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, coincidence-filled plotting, lame dialogue, and ham-fisted symbolism repeatedly undermine his best intentions.

Thornton plays Hank Grotowski, a rural Georgia prison guard whose life is little more than a nasty grind. Hank and his son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), live in lower-middle-class purgatory with Hank's mean-spirited, wheelchair-bound father, Buck (Peter Boyle, who, surprisingly, is pretty bad).

Both Hank and Buck are unashamed racists, the kind of people who make themselves feel superior by firing a shotgun in the air when African-American children dare to step on their property. It makes sense that there's no woman in the house. Genuine love seems out of the question for these men.

Good scenes followed by strange twists

Sonny, unfortunately, gets a double dose of Hank's hatred because the two work together at the local prison, where one of their duties is to prepare death-row inmates for execution. Their main charge, as the story opens, is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "Puffy" Combs), a black prisoner who has only a few days to live.

Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton star in 'Monster's Ball'

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Lawrence's gorgeous wife, Leticia (Berry), has been visiting him at the prison for 11 years, and we witness her final, tear-filled meeting with him before his sentence is carried out. The couple's pre-teen son, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), who's also there to say goodbye, is an obese child who secretly scarfs down candy bars to compensate for his shattered home life. His father's execution, as you can imagine, will only hurt him further.

The first few prison scenes are probably the best in the picture, as Hank, Sonny, and the other guards quietly practice strapping each other into the electric chair before the "big day." Sonny is far more humanistic than Hank -- which is to say he's not a self-absorbed animal -- so he's more willing to sympathize with Lawrence as his date with the chair approaches. Combs should be applauded for wanting to tackle such a serious role, but he comes up short, mostly pouting and staring at the ground to convey hopelessness.

After the execution, Addica and Rokos whip out a pair of unexpected tragedies that are best left for the audience's discovery. Both Hank and Leticia end up reeling from cruel twists of fate. This leads to a chance encounter on a rainy highway, where Hank helps Leticia deal with an exceptionally horrible event.

Unlikely incidents

It would seem doubtful that a woman who looks like Berry could stroll into a maximum security prison for over a decade and not be tucked away in the memory banks of every heterosexual male who works there. But Hank is unaware that Leticia was Lawrence's wife, and Leticia doesn't know Hank.

It also seems unlikely that a guy who uses the "n" word on a regular basis and threatens black co-workers when they dare to touch him would end up falling head-over-heels for an African-American woman, but that's exactly what happens.

First, though, Berry and Thornton have to participate in the most talked-about instance of movie flashing since Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs in "Basic Instinct."

After a couple shots of Jack Daniels, Hank and Leticia start tearing each other's clothes off, and Forster is more than happy to orchestrate the unveiling for maximum publicity. Out of nowhere, the movie's staid visual tone turns into a cycle of cross-cutting and partially obscured camera setups that suggest this is the real reason we're supposed to be watching.

If you're guessing Berry looks terrific in the buff, you're absolutely right. But the sudden soft-core pyrotechnics are almost as awkward as Hank's penchant for eating chocolate ice cream and pointedly taking his coffee black throughout the film. If it weren't so obvious, you might actually be moved.

"Monster's Ball" contains nudity, an electrocution, profanity, violence, racial sneering and some of the most joyless sex ever committed to celluloid. Thornton, in case you're wondering, doesn't get as much exposure as Berry, but it's not for lack of trying.


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