For a heady few years, not too long ago, we thought that Justin Timberlake might be an actor. More than an actor, even: a movie star. Heâ€™d charmed so thoroughly in his gigs hosting Saturday Night Live, though of course his success in that arena came from the happy surprise that he was funny for a singer. That crucial distinction went mostly ignored, though, and Timberlake was jammed into a ton of movies over a very short period of time, roughly 2011 to 2013, hailed to us as a new kind of Cher or, I guess, Frank Sinatra.
There was, on the auspicious side of things, David Fincherâ€™s The Social Network, in which he played cocky manipulator Sean Parker. It was a supporting role, but Timberlake got to say one of the filmâ€™s defining lines. (â€œYou know whatâ€™s cool? A billion dollars.â€�) And then there was the rest of the stuff: a drab romantic comedy called Friends With Benefits, the strenuously R-rated comedy Bad Teacher, the disappointing sci-fi actioner In Time. In 2013, Timberlake once again briefly delighted in the Coen brothersâ€™ Inside Llewyn Davis, a pleasant little dollop that undid some of the shame of that same yearâ€™s Runner Runner, an embarrassingly awful movie about a slick gambler getting in over his head. After that, Timberlake mostly retreated to music, and to the animated Trolls films. (The less said of Wonder Wheel, his 2017 outing with Woody Allen, the better.) Heâ€™d poked around at the movie star thing, and it just hadnâ€™t worked out.
Now, Timberlake is reemerging from his adopted home state of Montana to try his hand in front of the camera again, this time on a more modest scale. His new film is Palmer (Apple TV+, January 29), a small drama directed by Fisher Stevens, about a recent ex-con trying to get his feet back under him. He is, as is cinematic tradition, aided in his growth by a child, his grandmotherâ€™s neighbor. That kid, Sam (Ryder Allen), is picked on at school because heâ€™s into supposedly â€œgirlyâ€� things, like dolls and princesses and wearing dresses and makeup. Will this decidedly 21st century child help the stunted, nearing-40 Millennial learn to live again on the backroads of rural Louisiana? Reader, he will.
The setup for Palmer, written by Cheryl Guerriero (who also wrote the 2006 Paris Hilton vehicle National Lampoonâ€™s Pledge This!), is agreeable enough. Despite yearsâ€™ worth of accumulated clichÃ©, the kid-teaches-adult genre can still yield some fruitâ€”if the kid actor is right, and the sentiment is pitched carefully on the cozier side of cloying. With Palmerâ€™s added element of contemporary, and long overdue, discourse about gender, the film had the wan makings of something respectable enough, a gentle, low-key way for Timberlake to return to the movie star ecosystem.
In practice, though, Palmer feels as cynical and flimsy as Timberlakeâ€™s old big-budget stabs at movie stardom. The film doesnâ€™t actually show character growth so much as it tells you itâ€™s happening. Palmer goes from reticence to caring about young Samâ€”abandoned by his vaguely drug-addicted shambles of a mother (Juno Temple)â€”to doting father figure in the flash of a few scenes. Palmer develops because thatâ€™s what stories like this require him to do. Stevens, Guerriero, and Timberlake add nothing of the individual detail that would make this specific film, this one manâ€™s journey, mean anything on its own.Â
As for the matter of Samâ€™s gender expression, itâ€™s handled with a bare minimum of sensitivityâ€”but never with any real nuance. Thereâ€™s not even much discussion of it. Samâ€™s non-conforming identity is ultimately pretty incidental, used as a mere crutch to underscore Palmerâ€™s innate goodness and compassion. The movie seems utterly unconcerned with the realities of Samâ€™s life, his future, his needs beyond the close male care provided by Palmer. Heâ€™s a piece of the Palmer puzzle, slotted in next to Palmerâ€™s love interest, teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), whose presence as one of very few Black people in the film serves as proof that good olâ€™ Louisiana boy Palmer isnâ€™t racist.
The film is going for up-close, intimate, spare human drama, but it cuts every corner it can to get to its emotional payoff. Timberlake goes for man-of-few-words (or Man of the Woods) stoicism and comes off just as passively invested as the rest of the movie; the point is that heâ€™s doing it, not how itâ€™s done or what is being said.Â
Palmer is a sneaky kind of vanity project. Itâ€™s not one that gestures toward or further emboldens Timberlakeâ€™s shining celebrity profile. Instead, it works to shrink and reshape Timberlake into a serious actor with a political heart, imbued with a mission toward social justice. It feels more like a calculating read of the moment than a genuine conviction. Even Mark Wahlberg, in the upcoming drama now called Joe Bell, has made a more earnest attempt at tackling a cause far from his lived experience. Palmer is the microwave meal version of that flawed but decent film, hasty and cold at the center. It provokes no sympathy, let alone the warm, â€œwelcome backâ€� regard for Timberlake itâ€™s determined to stoke. At least Runner Runner 2 would have been something closer to sincere.
Where to Watch Palmer:
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