Palmer: Comfortable and Numb, by David Bax
Tobias A. Schliessler is a very talented cinematographer, able to deftly adapt his skills to, say, the brilliantly hyperreal theatricality of a film like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or to bring a cerebral brawniness to otherwise boneheaded movies like his Peter Berg collaborations (Lone Survivor, Patriots Day). With Palmer, though, director Fisher Stevens has used Schliessler’s abilities for evil, glossing up and cinema-fying what is otherwise a bit of third rate, made-for-TV pablum.
Justin Timberlake plays the title character, a man just released on parole after a twelve-year prison sentence. Taking up residence in his grandma’s (June Squibb) house and setting out to secure a job, he also finds himself playing father figure to a young boy named Sam (Ryder Allen) whose unreliable, drug-addicted mother (Juno Temple, an immensely capable actor once again typecast as a sad, sexy lowlife) rents a trailer on Palmer’s granny’s property. Palmer fulfills this paternal role begrudgingly at first but soon finds in it the first sense of purpose he’s had in his life since before his incarceration.
You know how people like to point out how, in some older movies, the story could have been resolved in the first act if people had smartphones? It’s even more fascinating–and frustrating–to note each point at which Palmer‘s storyline would have ground to a halt by any mandated reporter like a cop or a teacher doing what they’re supposed to do and alerting the proper authorities to the fact that a child is being left in the sole care of a recently paroled violent criminal to whom he has no relation.
At least Timberlake makes Palmer seem trustworthy–a little too much so for the movie’s purposes, actually. Despite his scruffy neckbeard, Timberlake can’t hide his wet, soulful eyes. It’s hard to see him as a hardened convict; we’re already prepared to forgive him before he’s even begun his redemption journey. Palmer is further proof that the quality of any movie with Timberlake in the cast is inversely proportionate to his share of the screen time.
Stevens’ seems to have taken his cues from his lead actor, calibrating the film’s overall approach to the same superficially gruff but deeply sappy pitch. The sheen of anti-sentimentality only makes the movie more mushy because it telegraphs its inevitable softening.
On paper, the characters here are all facing struggles, from the scarlet letter of Palmer’s criminal record to the abuse endured by the gender-nonconforming Sam. But Stevens and screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero have baby-proofed these difficulties, rounding off their edges. Palmer is like a placebo intended to temporarily make you feel better about the world, lying to you that every bad guy is a good guy at heart and every wrong can eventually be righted.