STONEWALL is a sudsy, underwritten, overwrought effort that is less than the intended tribute to the unsung heroes of the eponymous riots that accelerated the gay liberation movement into the social mainstream. Instead, it is a melodrama of truly epic proportions told with every cliché of gay life as lived in less enlightened times, and with characters, even the ones who are based on real people, that seem less like real people than diminished archetypes without a subtext.
We are introduced to the Stonewall Inn, where the riots started in 1969, and Christopher Street, the gay haven in New York City that was and is its address, courtesy of Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a farm-fresh teenager all wide eyes and disingenuous sweetness. Fresh off the bus from Ohio, where he was chucked from his rural home by his football coach father (David Cubitt) when caught with another boy, he lands on Christopher Street with his suitcase, his heartbreak, and the requisite shock at seeing two boys kissing one another in broad daylight. In short order, he’s been hit on by a goggle-eyed and aging queen (Richard Jutras) who salivates over the new kid on the block, and adopted by the gaggle of street hustlers led by Raymona (Jonny Beauchamp) who take a shine to him. In flashbacks, we see how Danny struggled with his sexuality back home, and in the present, we see him falling in love with the sultry Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who tells Danny to be out and proud. We also see how this breaks Raymona’s heart, sending her into the slough of despond as she tells Danny her life story of abuse and neglect. Beauchamp is genuinely affecting, finding a wrenching humanity in the purple prose with which he is given to emote, but the story, and the character, are painfully predictable, as is Danny’s eventual dabbling with prostitution in order to the pay the bills until his scholarship to Columbia comes through.
And so it is with every excruciating element of the plot.
There is nothing fresh, and nothing compelling about the radicalization of Danny. Perhaps it’s because that corn-fed expression never leaves Irvine’s face. When Danny gets angry, Irvine is still projecting that innate sweetness. He is, with that tousled blonde hair and milky skin with its apple cheeks, a beautiful ephebe with no more emotional resonance than if he were actually carved from a pillar of marble.
The story goes through all its expected tropes of corruption, betrayal and triumph, but with a perfunctory execution that feels more like the set-up for a big production number or a show-stopping ballad than a gritty exploration of the de-humanizing of a segment of our population. Even the requisite scene where Danny is beaten by cops lacks the full measure of brutality necessary.
STONEWALL is full of interesting facts about the riots, the which started when one too many police raids on the titular bar finally pushed the patrons to fight back. The mob ties to the bar, necessary because it was illegal to serve liquor to homosexuals, or for them to congregate. Why it was better to order beer than a mixed drink because of the water situation. Tidbits, alas, do not a movie make.
Director Roland Emmerich, a man who knows how to spin a glossy and over-the-top fantasy as in INDEPENDENCE DAY and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, and even the speculative history to be found in ANONYMOUS, tries hard, but his style never clicks with the subject matter, despite his best intentions and personal stake in telling the story. There should be anger, vitriol, and, by the end, a bittersweet exultation. Instead, the intensity necessary is lost in a haze of glamorous panache.