It might be time to apologize for all those Ben Affleck jokes, because in the nearly 15 years since Matt Damon and Affleck took the Oscar podium for "Good Will Hunting," only one of them has become a successful writer/director -- and it's not Damon.

And with Affleck's "Argo" steamrolling ahead as an Oscar contender (but not for director, alas), his former writing partner will attempt to catch up a bit with his new movie "Promised Land," which sees Damon team up once again with "Good Will Hunting" director Gus Van Sant as a writer and leading man.

An earnest Capra-esque drama starring Damon, Frances McDormand and co-writer John Krasinski, "Promised Land" follows Steve Butler (Damon), a well-meaning gas company employee who's in charge of paving the way for the company's operations in a small farming community. And everything's business as usual, until an outspoken school teacher (Hal Holbrook) and a charming environmental crusader (Krasinski) threaten to derail Steve's tried-and-true game plan.

Originally, Damon was supposed to make his directorial debut with "Promised Land," until his busy acting schedule forced him to cede the director's chair to Van Sant (and robbed us of seeing him go head-to-head with Affleck at the box office). Instead, Damon teamed up with another actor in Krasinski to produce the project and write the script, based on a story from novelist Dave Eggers. Of course, most moviegoers know Krasinski as Jim from "The Office," and he plays off that persona well as Dustin Noble, competing with Steve for the affections of both the townspeople, and more painfully, his newfound love interest Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt). And Dustin makes for a good foil, using his charm and a sob story to shoot holes in Steve's argument that natural gas is a safe source of energy, until you hate him almost as much as Steve does. (A third act twist does the rest.)

Initially, it's a little disconcerting to find yourself rooting for the "bad guy" over the plucky environmentalist, as "Promised Land" plays out like an anti-"Erin Brockovich." But Damon is no "Thank You for Smoking"-esque cynic; he genuinely believes he's helping the townspeople, even as he aims to lull them into signing on the dotted line with a well-practiced palaver and small-town costume (complete with the tags still on). Much like his iconic Will Hunting though, Damon's Butler may seem like one thing, but actually goes much deeper, provided you give him a chance. Whether he's a genius-janitor or a nice guy-natural gas pitchman, appearances can be deceiving. And despite his current circumstances (and what they might say about him), Steve's still a good guy underneath, something the movie is all too eager to help him prove.

Like his sometimes co-stars George Clooney and Brad Pitt, as Damon's platform and star have grown, he's also become increasingly outspoken about issues that are important to him; first teacher tenure, now fracking. And it shows in "Promised Land," a tight character piece that's an Issue Movie masquerading as a personal drama (or, depending who you talk to, vice versa). But despite appearances, this is no simple vanity project; at least initially, Damon's new movie ends up being more complicated than you might expect, even though it's abundantly clear where the filmmakers stand on natural gas drilling.

Of course, the film isn't without its flaws. After a strong first half that attempts to show the complexity of the fracking issue, "Promised Land" wraps up far too neatly, as it attempts to force Steve's character into an audience-friendly movie makeover. You'd think a salesman as experienced as Steve would be better-prepped to handle people like Dustin, and it's hard to buy that someone who just scored a big promotion would be so impossibly flummoxed by a lone environmentalist with a few posters and pamphlets. But it's all in service of hammering home the Big Message, even when it comes at the expense of the main character.

And that unfortunately means that any hopes of Damon and Van Sant finding their past Oscar magic are slim. Sure, "Promised Land" has some crowd-pleasing elements, but it won't capture audiences the way "Good Will Hunting" did fifteen years earlier. And despite being well-acted, well-shot, and well-edited, and the proven pedigree of its cast and crew, the movie's simultaneously too preachy and not preachy enough to hit the sweet spot with Oscar voters, almost like it's on the fence about committing to its own politics.

So maybe it's about time for Damon to reteam with his old pal Ben Affleck instead, who's a fair bet to take home a solo writing honor this year for his third feature, and a director who's shown exactly the sort of vigor that "Promised Land" lacks. Back in 1997, who would've predicted that Affleck would be the award-worthy filmmaker, while Damon was the one who'd have to prove to audiences he was more than just another A-list actor with a politically-charged vanity project? How do you like them apples, indeed.

categories Movies