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Clint Eastwood’s new movie The Mule is exasperatingly flat

Eastwood directs himself in a half-baked morality tale about a drug runner for a cartel.

Clint Eastwood directs and stars in The Mule.
Clint Eastwood directs and stars in The Mule.
Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Clint Eastwood is 88 years old. He both directed The Mule and stars in it, which is quite an accomplishment; it’s no small feat just to live that long, let alone keep making movies (and convince people to fund them). So I tip my hat to you, Clint.

I heartily wish, though, that The Mule itself had been anywhere near as impressive as the guy who made it. It’s a movie for Eastwood’s most faithful fans, some of whom may love seeing him return to his comfort zone: gruff old man learning a life lesson. For the rest of us, The Mule is a much more trying experience.

Based on the true story of Leo Sharp, a 90-year-old man who worked as a drug mule for a Mexican cartel, The Mule is a thinly characterized, clunkily realized showcase for its director, who may or may not be working out some personal issues on screen. Yes, there are some very funny moments, and Eastwood retains plenty of charm.

But too often, the film feels slapped together, half-assed, and lacking some much-needed care. And nowhere is that more evident than in the way the characters themselves are written.

The Mule is based on a true story about a man with an estranged family and a new job

With The Mule, Nick Schenk, the screenwriter behind Eastwood’s 2008 film Gran Torino — in which Eastwood plays a character much like this one — has adapted the story of Leo Sharp into the tale of Earl Stone, a grizzled vet and horticulturist specializing in daylilies who prefers his flowers to his family.

We first meet Earl in 2005, when he skips his daughter’s wedding to go to a horticulturist convention and bask in the adoration of his fellow flower-growers. Then the movie jumps forward 12 years. Earl has lost his farm, the business having shifted to e-commerce florists — “Damn internet, it ruins everything,” he mutters — and he’s lost his family, too. His ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and appropriately named daughter Iris (Eastwood’s real-life daughter, Alison) won’t speak to him. Only Iris’s daughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) keeps in touch.

Taissa Farmiga and Clint Eastwood in The Mule.
Taissa Farmiga and Clint Eastwood in The Mule.
Warner Bros.

It’s at a brunch at some point prior to Ginny’s wedding, which Earl attends after packing up his belongings and leaving his foreclosed farm, that he finds his way into a new occupation: A guest says he knows some guys who will pay him to “just drive.” And that’s how Earl starts running drugs.

He’s skeptical at first, but he finds that he enjoys the trips and especially the money. It lets him pay for the open bar at Ginny’s wedding, renovate the local VFW hall, buy a new truck, and start to work his way back into the lives of his estranged family. He likes the travel, which takes him several states away from his home in Peoria, Illinois. He likes the food. He likes the sights. And he likes the encounters he tends to have along the way. (Earl has not one but two threesomes with buxom young women during this movie.)

But drug running is rarely, if ever, truly easy, even for a guy like Earl. There’s drama in the cartel leadership, headed by a suave guy at the top (Andy Garcia). And two DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña) are closing in on Earl. Things start to head south — especially when tragedy strikes, and Earl has to choose between work and family once again.

The Mule is sorely underwritten, and suffers from it

Being nearly 90 — and white — is pretty helpful if you’re trying to transport giant bricks of cocaine from point A to point B: It’s relatively simple to talk your way out of a traffic stop, and you’re less liable to get pulled over (provided your driving doesn’t suggest that your vision is impaired).

Alison Eastwood and Clint Eastwood in The Mule.
Alison Eastwood and Clint Eastwood in The Mule.
Warner Bros.

That kind of privilege is certainly one of the subjects of The Mule, just as it was a subject of David Lowery’s recent film The Old Man and the Gun, which starred Robert Redford. In fact, the two films are similar in a lot of ways: Both are based on true stories of old men who got away with crimes (running drugs and robbing banks) for much longer than they should have. Both are showcases for Hollywood icons.

Perhaps most notably, both feel like elegies for a past in which those men were very comfortable. The Mule is at pains to make sure we are very aware that Earl comes from another time.

There are many (many, many) moments in which Earl rants about the kids and their cell phones these days. A small sampling: “That’s the problem with this generation — can’t open a fruit box without calling the internet.” “That would work a lot better if you got that goddamn phone out of your hand.” “I don’t know what it is with you guys and your generation. Don’t you guys live life outside the goddamn phone?” You get it.

Earl is also the kind of old guy who utters casually racist or homophobic slurs right to people’s faces, and then when he’s called out, doesn’t apologize so much as express surprise that he’s not supposed to say stuff like that. (“Well, shit,” he says in wonderment, after a black couple kindly corrects him when he uses a racist slur while helping them with a flat tire.)

Earl is obviously able to change — the whole movie is about him learning and growing — but it’s not totally clear what all of these moments are doing in the movie, other than attempting to add some sort of levity. They don’t feel wanton so much as half-baked and poorly conceived; they aren’t doing any storytelling work.

That’s somewhat predictable in a film where any Latino characters are either associated with the drug cartel or one-note sketches. The same goes for the film’s women, Earl’s family, who don’t have much to do except be mad at him or forgive him.

Clint Eastwood in The Mule
There’s a lot of driving in The Mule.
Warner Bros.

Earl, then, is a three-dimensional character moving through a world that’s peopled by caricatures and cardboard cutouts, which means he is almost by default The Mule’s most sympathetic figure. When he finally apologizes to Mary, saying that in the past he “thought it was more important to be somebody out there than the damn failure I was here in my own home,” we can almost feel sorry for him.

But the line, like so many others in The Mule, feels like it’s borrowed from a movie where it’s more earned. Maybe the strangest thing about this film is that it has all the emotional resonance of the most maligned, sentimental Hallmark movie, trying to force you to feel stuff without telling you why you should. It feels, in the end, inauthentic.

That’s mitigated a bit by the fact that Eastwood, famously a workaholic, didn’t just cast himself in the film, but cast his own daughter, too, to play Earl’s neglected and hurt daughter. It’s interesting to think about what that choice could mean. Perhaps Eastwood saw the project as a kind of apology that he could live out in real time, or at least a mea culpa for the ways he’s treated women close to him in the past (such as his recently deceased ex-partner, the actress Sondra Locke, with whom he had an acrimonious, turbulent relationship that ended in two explosive lawsuits).

And yet, it doesn’t save the film. That a screenplay this underwritten was made into a movie is an undeniable testament to Eastwood’s staying power in Hollywood, even at his advanced age. But The Mule left me wishing that all of that experience had been translated into a more serious movie than one about an old man finally seeing people for who they are.

The Mule opens in theaters on December 14.

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