What does Justin Timberlake want? Not yet 40 years old, the pop icon has sold tens of millions of albums in his solo music career alone, resulting in ten Grammy Awards, and performed at two Super Bowl halftime shows, one of which gave birth to the dreadful phrase “wardrobe malfunction.”
Though he’s dabbled in the movie industry throughout the years with films like The Social Network and the Trolls franchise, his latest project Palmer would suggest that he wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic leading man. Since a future Tony Award seems inevitable given his undeniable music talent, it makes sense that he would want to refine his acting chops to secure EGOT status.
But starring in hoary pablum like this latest offering from Apple TV+ won’t do his career or his Oscar aspirations any favors.
Timberlake stars as Eddie Palmer, a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who’s just been released from prison after a 12-year stint for attempted murder. He returns to the rural Louisiana home of his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who takes him in on the condition that he finds a job and joins her for church every Sunday.
After finding out just how difficult it is for convicted felons to land even a minimum wage gig, he’s eventually hired as a janitor for the local elementary school, where he meets a charming young teacher named Maggie (Alisha Wainwright). One of her students Sam (Ryder Allen) is also taken in by Vivian after being abandoned by his delinquent mother Shelley (Juno Temple), which causes Palmer and Sam to strike up an unlikely friendship with one another.
Beyond Timberlake’s apparent desire to win respect within the acting community, it’s difficult to know what drew anyone to make Palmer. Director Fisher Stevens is best known for his work on socially-conscious, nature-based documentaries like the Oscar-winner The Cove and Before the Flood, but his narrative instincts on display here are about as pedestrian as it gets.
“Ex-con mentors troubled youth” isn’t exactly the most promising starting point, but I was hoping that Stevens would be able to add some sort of depth or nuance as the story progressed. Not only does he refuse to have an original take on this tired material, but he leans into nearly every cliche that we’ve come to associate with this overwrought brand of melodrama that’s barely above the level of a Hallmark movie.
The script by Cheryl Guerriero is packed with characters so one-dimensional that they more closely resemble a line-up from a geometry textbook rather than an assemblage of people who actually exist in the real world. It evokes a simplistic and stereotypical view of Southern culture that’s so obvious and unsophisticated that it’s borderline insulting.
This is one of those movies that seems to have been created by pulling from a hat filled with the most trite scenes imaginable, from a pack of good ol’ boys drunkenly regaling each other with stories from their glory days to a tear-filled custody hearing where the judge demands order from the courtroom. I can’t readily recall a screenplay more complacent and safe than the one that Guerriero offers here.
In the midst of a streaming war that gets more competitive every year, Apple TV+ is still in the relatively early phases of developing their original content. Though they have yet to create a series that makes their service indispensable, they’ve moved the meter a bit with offerings like Servant and Ted Lasso. From the film side of things, their partnership with A24 yielded successes last year like On The Rocks and Boys State and promises more winners in the future.
Beyond those, their movies have ranged greatly in terms of quality and style, which makes it difficult to tell what kind of brand they’re trying to establish. Regardless of what the future holds for the emerging streaming service, they’ll need to do better than utterly bland fare like Palmer to command the attention of couchbound audiences.
Also new to streaming this weekend
Arriving on HBO Max is The Little Things, a crime thriller starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek about a feud between a deputy and a detective during the investigation of a serial killer in 1980s California.
Debuting on Netflix is The Dig, a period drama starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes about an archeologist who discovers and begins excavating the Sutton Hoo burial site in 1930s England.
Out for digital rental is Supernova, a romantic drama starring Colin Firth and Stanley Stucci about a pair of longtime partners who reunite with friends and family after one of them is diagnosed with early onset dementia.