Few directors in the world have been as reliable as Ang Lee. Since his breakout film, The Wedding Banquet, released 23 years ago, his 10 films since that initial Oscar-nominated success have included probably the best Jane Austen adaptation (Sense and Sensibility), possibly one of the darkest glimpses at American suburbia (The Ice Storm), the richest crossover martial arts picture (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), the culture’s most iconic Queer romance (Brokeback Mountain), its most sincere, gorgeous 3-D experience (Life of Pi), and even a challenging, idiosyncratic Marvel movie (Hulk). That last one wasn’t a popular success and in interviews since its 2003 release, Lee has humorously apologized for making it. Brace yourselves for more mea culpas coming soon from Lee, because Hulk is Casablanca next to the lumpy, meaningless Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the weirdest and rarest misfire in his illustrious career.
The film is based on the 2012 novel by Ben Fountain, which chronicled in a satiric Catch-22 tone one day in the life of a 19-year-old Iraq War hero who’s been sent home with his troop for a media blitz on Thanksgiving in 2003. Joe Alwyn, a blue-eyed British actor making his film debut in the title role, delivers a quietly expressive performance, especially in moments where the camera lingers on his haunted face. But Alwyn’s freshness cannot save the movie’s many misguided conversation scenes, starting from the top, as Billy’s platoon leader (Garrett Hedlund) lectures his team on proper etiquette for their appearance at Dallas Cowboys game. The dialogue is insipid drill sergeant clichés, the actors look like a drama club in dress rehearsal, and the action never pops with authenticity.
The script’s deadly earnestness is briefly suspended during Kristen Stewart’s scenes as Billy sister (Vin Diesel is also corny but not bad as a soldier in Iraq flashbacks), but comes on strong in awkward stabs at ironic humor, featuring Chris Tucker as a Hollywood agent, Steve Martin as a football mogul, and a Destiny’s Child halftime sequence, which includes the film’s single dorkiest bit: a behind the shoulders shot of what is supposed to be Beyoncé, sashaying at our stunned protagonist. A short scene with Tim Blake Nelson as a vampiric fracking businessman is the movie at it’s worst—clumsy, obvious, and clinging onto any 2016 relevance like a life preserver.
But despite the weakness of its satire, Billy Lynn’s would be nothing more than a disposable folly on Lee’s resume if not for the director’s bizarre, inexplicable decision to shoot the movie in Hobbit-esque high-definition. The technical details of this are actually quite uninteresting—think of the camera cranked up to ludicrous speed for maximum clarity and supposed lifelikeness—and the results are as uneasy on the eyes as convenience store surveillance footage. The thought of a visual masterpiece like Life of Pi being shot in this format instantly ruins the movie in your mind. The format offers astonishing depth of field (while presenting poor Steve Martin’s face like a topographical moon map), but to what end? So that we can see even the tiniest detail—of a big ugly football stadium? As it stands, the only sharp thing about the film is its pixels. C-