Gran Torino

Eastwood swings at social commentary and misses -- 2 stars

Directed by Clint Eastwood. January 2009, USA. Rated R: 116 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 1/11/2009)

The eternal scowl of Clint Eastwood returns in wide release this week in Gran Torino, Eastwood’s latest project as actor-director-producer (but not screenwriter; that credit goes to Nick Schenk). The living legend stars as Walt Kowalski, a retired automaker and Korean War vet from Motor City with reactionary values. The film opens to a scene of his wife’s funeral, where he glares at his own granddaughter for exposing her midriff in church, mocking (in Walt’s eyes) her dead relative with her bellybutton ring. Walt utters a low growl as she sits down next to her cousin — clad sloppily in a Detroit Lions jersey — and proceeds to open her cell phone. Walt’s permanent angry-face shows his alienation from this 21st century culture of constant text messaging and disregard for one’s elders.

Above all, he hates how “swamp rats” — just one of many racist terms he applies to Asians — are overtaking his neighborhood. Yet when his suspicions come true and he catches Thao (Bee Vang), a bookish teen of Hmong descent, attempting to steal his mint condition 1972 Gran Torino, a curious connection between the two loners blossoms into a bizarre friendship. Walt takes it upon himself to teach Thao — whom he calls “Toad” because he’s that ignorant — how to do man things like construction work, talking to women and chewing the fat with other middle-aged white racists. And when Thao’s older cousin won’t leave him alone, Walt becomes Thao’s protector from gang violence.

Gran Torino has its charming moments, like when Walt makes an awkward visit to a Hmong house party with Thao’s sister Sue (the delightful Ahney Her) as his tour guide. The film intends for us to believe Walt gains an intercultural understanding, and sometimes he almost does . . . but then he calls Thao’s family “zipperheads” and “gooks” and insinuates they eat dogs, and for some reason, they take it in stride. The audience is supposed to laugh at those points. And they do, but it’s nervous laughter — or else laughter at how lame the movie’s sense of humor is. Even though Walt learns to befriend Thao’s family, he’s still a condescending prick out to show Thao that the white way is the right way.

The real laughs come from Vang’s stilted acting and from Eastwood’s sad attempt to sing the title theme as the credits roll. I love Eastwood, but he probably should have called it quits as an actor after Million Dollar Baby (2004).