“Mojave” opens Friday at AMC Johnson Creek. R, 1:37, two stars out of four.
You know how, sometimes, an actor will be on some kind of golden streak, with one great performance and one great film after another, until you think that there’s no physical way they will ever make a bad movie ever again?
Oh, hi, Oscar Isaac in “Mojave.”
Isaac has had an incredible run lately, from “Inside Llewyn Davis” to “Ex Machina” to, of course, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” But that run comes to a screeching halt with “Mojave,” a limp and pretentious thriller that plays like the “Entourage” guys tried to make a Hitchcock movie: The Brah Who Knew Too Much.
Garrett Hedlund stars as Thomas, a pampered TV star who just wants to be an artist, man, instead of a Hollywood celebrity talking on his cell phone with his venal agent (a narcotized Walton Goggins) or a jerk producer (a needs-to-be-narcotized Mark Wahlberg, who at one points screams into a phone the unforgettable line “You can stick it up your ass! Right up ya bum!” Bum? Is my mom starting to write hard-boiled dialogue?).
So Thomas flees into the desert to, like, find himself, which mainly involves flipping over his jeep and swigging booze from the battle as he staggers around the sands. You can almost imagine the story he’s going to tell the Esquire interviewer for a future “What I’ve Learned” feature. Sitting around the campfire one night, Thomas has a visitor. Jack (Isaac), a dodgy desert rat in a duster coat, silver teeth and habit for peppering every one of Monahan’s overcooked lines with a Hulk Hogan-esque “brother.”
Tom and Jack warily lob literary allusions back and forth — “Moby-Dick,” the Bible — until it’s time to throw down with guns and knives. Jack gets chased off, and Thomas flees into the desert. But when he accidentally shoots a policeman, thinking he’s aiming at Jack, Thomas hightails it back to Hollywood. (Bet that won’t make it into the “What I’ve Learned” piece.)
Jack follows and, rather improbably, insinuates himself into Hollywood’s moral desert (get it?), trading in the duster for a sharp black suit and his rusty Aistream trailer for a hilltop mansion. What Jack wants isn’t clear — maybe blackmail, maybe murder — to either Thomas or Jack or certainly writer-director William Monahan, but it all seems like an excuse for Jack to menace Thomas some more with literary allusions. There’s some playful ambiguities about whether Jack might not be so bad (or at least no worse than Thomas), as he taunts, “Do you know yet which one of us is the bad guy?” But “Mojave” flinches from wandering that far from convention, eventually revealing Jack to be the same over-educated psychopath we’ve seen in a million other late-night cable offerings.
Monahan has written some great scripts (“The Departed”), but he’s so in love with his own writing voice that the film almost approaches self-knowing parody; when the new Hollywood Jack lapses into screenwriter-speak (“Let’s talk story, brother”), it’s not that you can just see the puppet strings, but you can see Monahan’s big fingers moving the characters around like stop-motion Lego figures. As a filmmaker, Monahan gets some lovely use out of those stark desert vistas, Jack sometimes appearing as a tiny figure in the distance, like a speck Thomas can’t get out of his eye. But the Hollywood scenes are typical seedy L.A. noir, and he can’t draw much suspense or force out of the frequent violence.
It has to be said that Isaac gets as much mileage out of the material as he can, his voice a thirsty rasp as he rumbles his way through Monahan’s overstuffed lines. And maybe that’s the ultimate definition of a movie star; not that they can boast a perfect record, but they invite us to have a good time with them while they go down swinging.