It's impossible to hate a Clint Eastwood film.
You just can't.
There's something about Eastwood that makes you instantly forgive his failures, his excesses, his occasional mopiness, and his bumper car social politics.
I mean, seriously. Eastwood hasn't really made anything resembling a brilliant film in several years, but each year you know he's going to show back up with one or even two new motion pictures and you can't help but find yourself rootin' for the guy.
That's kind of the character that Eastwood plays in his latest film, The Mule, in which the 88-year-old actor plays 90-year-old Earl Stone, a broke and alone man existing on the edge of irrelevance and foreclosure of his business when he's offered a job that even at 90-years-old he can actually do.
All he has to do is drive.
Of course, this is an Eastwood film and that's not all there is to it.
Earl's driving is for a Mexican cartel.
But, it's a job. It's a fairly easy job, really, and it's a job that Earl ends up doing surprisingly well.
I mean, would you pull over some 90-year-old grizzled geezer lookin' like Eastwood?
Yeah, me neither.
As Eastwood's successful runs pile up, his financial problems evaporate and his relevance, the thing that really matters, starts to increase again.
Earl may not be making the healthiest choices, but at 90-years-old you only have so many choices left anyway.
So, he keeps makin' em. Eventually, he's assigned a handler from the cartel .
Eventually, of course, he also attracts the attention of a DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), a hard-charger with his own life issues festering around in his head.
You kind of already know how this is all going to turn out, either because you've read the New York Times article upon which Nick Schenk's script is based or you've simply seen every other film that Eastwood has ever made.
The Mule isn't really a good film. It's a "good enough" film. The Mule is good enough to keep Eastwood's fans happy. The Mule is good enough to satisfy fans of decent action flicks and fans of instrospective psychological dramas.
The Mule is good enough. It's good enough to keep Eastwood relevant for one more year or one more film or one more of those intangible somethings that we all start looking for as we get older and start to see our lives slipping away into something that resembles irrelevance or faded dreams or lost opportunities.
The Mule plays out with a gentle, meandering and seemingly confused mournfulness that sort of takes you along with it. It's difficult to figure out if Eastwood really believed he was making a meaningful film about family, work-life balance and the American dream, but I can't help but think that mostly those are things we get out of the film that Eastwood didn't necessarily put in there intentionally. The film is too workmanlike, too ordinary really, to be a deeply meaningful film but it's also not quite like the more action-centered, connect-the-dots shoot 'em up films of Eastwood's past. It's somewhere in the middle, a perfectly fine road trip motion picture with hints of meaning.
No, it's not meaning. It's relevance. The Mule has hints of relevance.
Listen, unless he's talkin' to a chair Eastwood's never really going to tell you what he means. He's going to let you take away from an Eastwood film whatever you will. I resonated with The Mule, though I didn't particularly enjoy it that much. It reminded me of The Old Man & The Gun, though The Mule is a clumsier film less certain in its ways. There's times the film's tension is actually tense, though Eastwood himself is always cool.
I also picture Bradley Cooper going a little bit crazy here, the now esteemed director likely seeing just how close to The Mule gets to being a really great film but never quite getting there.
Maybe it was enough to just hang out with Eastwood. I'm sure that would have been pretty cool.
I bet that the wonderful Dianne Wiest also saw it, though Wiest, as Earl's bitter ex-wife, makes the most of the material alongside Alison Eastwood as Earl's soon to be wed daughter. Granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) isn't quite as bitter, her grandpa still an amusing diversion still on this side of actually being a grandpa in her life.
Alison Eastwood's presence here feels really.
Maybe it is.
The Mule is rather cutesie for a while. Then, it's not. That's mostly when Andy Garcia shows up as the head of the cartel, Earl's hauls increasing in size and mandating a no-nonsense handler (Ignacio Serricchio), whose arrival signals that The Mule is about to get a whole lot more serious.
The presence of Laurence Fishburne adds gravitas, while both Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena give the film the sort of soulfulness that even Eastwood's world-weary physicality cannot.
The Mule isn't a good film. It's a "good enough" film, a film that's immensely more satisfying than the woefully disappointing The 15:17 to Paris, a novel little experiment of a film that not a single soul wanted to be Eastwood's last film.
The Mule may or may not be Eastwood's last film. Sometimes, it seems like Eastwood is immortal but I have a feeling he's realizing he's not and he's trying to figure it all out in some way, shape or form. I'm willing to remember Eastwood this way, a grizzled old grandpa with a silly grin on his face and an unresolved, still burning and beating heart.
The Mule is Eastwood at his most whimsical, slight and gentle reflections wrapped around a stereotypical Eastwood flick that never quite earns that whimsy but that whimsy makes you smile anyway.
Because you can't hate a Clint Eastwood film. You simply can't. You can't help but root for the guy.
And that's what I did during The Mule.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic