- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

"Monster's Ball" wants to be embraced as a sincere, albeit titillating, fable of interracial redemption. The mutual beneficiaries, played by Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, are a widowed, embittered prison guard named Hank Grotowski, and a more recently widowed, impoverished waitress named Leticia Musgrove.
Strangers at the outset, they live in the same small town. That's presumably in Louisiana, since the Angola prison farm is used to authenticate Hank's job. There he has recently captained the detail assigned to a death-row inmate named Lawrence Musgrove, Leticia's hapless spouse. Musgrove is played by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, who could probably disappear into character roles if he let himself.
A preposterous pattern of coincidences throws Hank and Leticia together shortly after he loses a son named Sonny (Heath Ledger, last summer's premature star of tomorrow), and Leticia is about to lose hers, a grotesquely obese lad named Tyrell. That leaves only Hank's hateful, invalid, racist old father, Buck (Peter Boyle), as a stumbling block to fresh starts and potential happiness once Hank and Leticia have a sexual encounter one lonely night a scene that gives the movie its undeniable selling point, a sustained eyeful of explicitly carnal simulation and convulsion.
Mercifully, old Buck is shifted from the Grotowski residence to a retirement home, where he promises to be a disgruntled outcast. Spectators might get the impression that "Monster's Ball" is not as generous a heartwarmer as director Marc Forster and screenwriters Milo Addica and Will Rokos seem to believe. The plot favors the coldblooded rather than the inspirational.
Ostensibly, "Monster's Ball" celebrates an unlikely love story in which stricken folks of different races share sexual fireworks and then look forward to a rich, richly deserved, full life together. The fly in the inspirational ointment is that the filmmakers need to be ruthless matchmakers, eliminating all the superfluous members of the Grotowski and Musgrove households to clear the decks for a transcendant love affair.
The path to happiness and redemption in "Monster's Ball" is paved with a morbidly funny succession of mercy killings, or banishments.
The filmmakers seem oblivious to their cutthroat favoritism. They're also pretty dim when it comes to anticipating the comic booby traps that lurk beneath their agonized solemnity. Even Hank's stereotyped order at his favorite diner, chocolate ice cream and coffee, acquires a terminally absurd dimension after he meets Leticia, a replacement waitress, and instantly starts to thaw under her sorrowfully smoldering influence.
Buck's virulence, which briefly threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the works by antagonizing Leticia, who has no idea that such a father-in-law might be part of Hank's baggage, becomes more laughable than it should be in a heartfelt context. If the filmmakers want us to take this wretch in earnest, which they do for about three-quarters of the movie, they need to make some adjustments in his believability and expendability.
The grim and fatalistic exposition seems to be preparing us for a chronicle of never-ending woe and frustration. Hank, who may have driven his wife to suicide, is the son of a brute who did drive his wife to suicide. Hank's poor youngster, Sonny, doesn't seem to stand a chance, and the circumstances of his shocking, ugly departure reflect badly on Hank.
Yoked to a condemned felon from one direction and a pathetic, burdensome child on the other, Leticia would look like a goner if she didn't look as desirable as Miss Berry, who seems to be waging a successful campaign to be crowned the sexiest actress on the screen. It's an unofficial honor, of course, but her contributions to the disreputable "Swordfish" and now "Monster's Ball" have been provocative beyond the call of duty.
Anyway, prurient novelty rather than a pure heart will redeem "Monster's Ball" at the box office. Legitimate movie actors are only going to venture this close to hard-core depiction a couple of times in their careers, in part because the costs are bound to be high if they end up looking ridiculous.


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