Eric Eason’s directorial debut, Manito, earned him the Best Emerging Director award at the first Tribeca Film Festival. Though the movie failed to make much of a splash beyond lower Manhattan (the IMDb lists a limited release in the summer of 2003), it’s nevertheless understandable that Tribeca organizers would welcome the director back with open arms upon completion of his sophomore effort. The problem is that Eason’s Journey to the End of the Night, which had its world premiere at the Festival this weekend, is the kind of movie that takes itself so seriously, and is so utterly unsuccessful, that audiences actually laugh when it reaches it denouement. Not lacking for Hollywood star power, the movie is a dark, night-bound tale of family, drugs, and murder in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and it’s a disaster. Full of ominous music and over-the-top emotions, it is virtually devoid of likable characters, and gives the audience no reason to care about the events and relationships it details. Instead, we sit and watch a series of increasingly outrageous events, rapidly losing interest and staying, finally, only to see just how silly it is all going to get.
Journey to the End of the Night takes place over the course of a single night, and details the efforts of a father and son to unload a suitcase full of cocaine. Unbeknownst to one other, they are both planning to leave the country as soon as the deal is done -- with the same woman. The father (Scott Glenn) runs a semi-classy club/brothel, and seems to have been in Brazil for some time. For unspecified reasons he can’t go back to the US, and is using this final score to change his ways. He’s given the club to his son Paul (Brendan Fraser, who seems to pick and portray emotions completely at random), and is setting out for a new life with his young, Brazilian wife (Angie, played by Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Moreno, who is given precious little to do here) and their son. Paul, meanwhile, is a mass of vices. He’s addicted to coke and alcohol, is violent, a gambler, and is double-crossing his apparently willfully clueless father in several different ways. He’s also so totally unpredictable and unsympathetic that it’s impossible to understand why anyone would have anything to do with him, let alone leave one’s husband for that privilege, something Angie has foolishly agreed to do.
The film’s only appealing, vaguely realistic character is Wemba, a kitchen worker from Nigeria who is pulled into the drug deal because of the death of the original courier. Though he’s not better-written than anyone else in the film, the fact that Wemba is played by Mos Def makes a world of difference. Instead of the bizarre, one-note approaches taken by the actors around him (or, in the case of Fraser, all of the notes, all at once), Mos plays Wemba with the impressive subtlety that has become his calling card as an actor, carefully collecting small, physical and emotional traits to create a real person in the midst of absurd, artificial chaos. Through Mos deserves credit for doing his best to save the movie, within the context of Journey to the End of the Night, his performance is often incredibly jarring, serving primarily to remind us how unintentionally outrageous the rest of the movie really is.