If Oliver Stone can’t trust himself, why should his audience trust him? What he thinks he’s been doing since Natural Born Killers is anyone’s guess, but it looks as if he believes himself to have inaugurated a new kind of filmmaking—high-pitched, cruel, and monstrously sensationalistic.

But if Killers was a supposed indictment of the quest for stimulation-unto-numbness wrought by American values—consumerism, anti-spiritualism, the exaltation of the individual—then U-Turn is a lurid, prurient, completely dishonest exploitation of it. Killers ended up eating its own tail (like the scorpion Stone is so giddily frightened by) during the second half’s tedious indictment of the media—um, the rest of the media. U-Turn cops swooningly to the charms of superhype, but the admission that this stuff is fun to watch—Tarantino, the playful Shih Tzu, nips at the heels of thoughtful old St. Bernards—isn’t an honest one. For one thing, Stone doesn’t seem to believe he can pull it off.

He doesn’t give the story (same old story, adapted by John Ridley from his book Stray Dogs) a chance before he’s thwacking us with Irony. Fresh from earning the $30,000 he needs to pay off a Russian mobster (whatever), and having lost only two fingers to the mobster’s pruning shears in the process, Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) motors carelessly through the Arizona desert. Meanwhile, vultures feast on a coyote’s carcass, roadside grave markers flash by, and cripplingly ironic music—in this case Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day”—makes its first but by no means last appearance. Oh, and he runs over a cat.

Since everything’s so hyped from the start, there’s nowhere for Stone to go; it’s all sultry clichés and violent sensation. Bobby’s Mustang busts a hose right outside the town of Superior, Ariz., and he rolls it into the garage of shamelessly hammy Billy Bob Thornton (playing Darrell, a man so physically disgusting he should by all rights be hospitalized), before going on to meet the inhabitants.

Is it hot here? One-hundred-ten in the shade, my friend. There’s the crooked sheriff (Powers Boothe), the blind Native American veteran (Jon Voight) who sits on the street dispensing wisdom and insults to the stranger, a hotheaded dandy in Bob Wills’ old suit (Joaquin Phoenix), a beehived diner waitress named Flo (Julie Hagerty), and various fat, dirty, careless purveyors of food.

Everyone’s an extravagant psycho with lurid psycho accouterments, and Superior is designed especially for their like—even the church is closed, a helpful close-up warns. This is the kind of desert fleabite where everyone says the same pseudo-naive thing about Bobby’s injury (“You ought to be more careful”) and all the teenage girls look like Claire Danes or Liv Tyler. As you can see by the showy casting, I don’t need to tell you who plays them. And of course there’s Grace (Jennifer Lopez), local hottie and wife of the town real estate mogul, Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte). “I got my drapes,” she says to the sheriff. He says, “It’s about time.”

Bobby helps Grace hang her drapes, and his futile quest for something cold to drink ends up implausibly destroying his cash. Darrell has succeeded in dismantling the Mustang and won’t return it without a hefty payment; Toby, the Western-suited kid, keeps trying to fight Bobby over his supposed attentions to Toby’s trampy pigtailed girlfriend (Danes). Bobby can’t walk a step without getting shot at, roughed up, or propositioned, and very soon the movie’s ending starts tapping you insistently on the shoulder.

Stone has become besotted with the film-school tricks he used—to better, scarier effect—in Natural Born Killers. U-Turn is shot in a dizzying and uninformative series of wildly arbitrary angles (close-ups on bits of people’s faces, most of them unpleasant), using every type of cinematographic illusion available: slow motion, time-lapse, split screen, jump cuts, lap dissolves, flashbacks, flash-forward. Stone is still fiddling with that fucked-up film stock for a supergrainy, Super 8 look; the bleached-out but color-saturated result is at once chicly retro and cutely amateurish.

The script has nothing new to tell us—everyone’s fate is so clear you can’t believe it takes Stone two full hours to wrap it up—and its attitude is hateful. Grace, the character, complains of being treated like “a piece of meat” while Lopez, the actress, is asked to shriek, “I fucked my daddy!” Her face forms the central motif of the repulsive montage we’ve all been waiting for—a literal orgy of sex, blood, and money.

But even if there’s a drop of originality left in the highly charged desert-noir plot, Stone’s execution doesn’t search it out. Is it fear or stupidity that makes U-Turn so clichéd, so tedious, so ugly? (It makes Dennis Hopper’s overlong and underrated The Hot Spot look like Potemkin.) Older, more established directors continue to run scared of the violent, stylish new generation—we may never see another bloody shootout that isn’t accompanied by a cheery musical counterpoint. In U-Turn’s case, a holdup gone awry ends in carnage to the tune of “I Wish You Love.” But it’s plain stupidity that makes anyone look to a 26-year-old Stanley Kubrick movie for that modern touch.

Sex-horror of the more prosaic, old-fashioned kind is murkily at play in Kiss the Girls, based on James Patterson’s best-selling novel. The plot is standard among paperbacks of the bloody kind: In the deluxe version, seduction spells redrum for girls poleaxed by male maturity, as in the low-budget Freudian masterpiece of adolescent paranoia, Lisa. Patterson’s story, however, comes with no frills—the kisser/killer of girls is nothing more than a stalker gone seriously rancid.

He calls himself “Casanova” or the “Gentleman Caller” (Lisa’s boyfriend was the “Candlelight Killer”), and he collects women peculiarly unsuited to the victim role—defiant and strong-willed. When one of his unwilling harem, a kick-boxing pediatric surgeon named Kate Mctiernan (Ashley Judd) breaks loose, she joins up with the forensic psychologist (Morgan Freeman) for whom the quest is personal—Casanova has made off with his pretty, violin-playing niece (Gina Ravera).

So far straight out of the blisterpak, and Kiss the Girls stays that way throughout. Patterson’s plot (the screenplay is by David Klass) is solidly constructed and comes with just the right number of well-timed surprises, and some of the acting around the edges—Jeremy Piven as a detective with no social skills, Alex McArthur smoldering in a tiny role—is amazingly good. But Gary Fleder doesn’t so much direct as hit his marks; the whole ship barrels smoothly toward the dock, and everyone arrives safe and unshaken, including the paying crowd.

No genre is too sacred for an adaptation to go through the motions, and as it appears to be Go Through the Motions Week, ungifted middle-class-art-film director Agnieszka Holland weighs in with her rendition of Henry James’ Washington Square.

If, as the old literary joke goes, Edith Wharton is Henry James with balls, this adaptation certainly has less teeth—pardon my Freud—than Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, even if that film was horribly miscast. Washington Square isn’t a travesty, it’s just very polite toward the period setting, right down to every ostentatiously authentic button.

But the story is so resilient and haunting that even Holland’s stodgy-when-it’s-not-weird directing can’t kill its allure. Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) grew up rich, secure, and despised by her doctor father (Albert Finney). This casting doesn’t just throw Finney another great-man part; it’s the slyest, most intelligent trick move here—you only have to look at her father to see why Catherine is attracted to swaggering, pouty-lipped Morris.

She is so cosseted and naive that she believes she knows what love is although she has never experienced it—her own complete, overwhelming devotion to the old man is the only version of the stuff on tap in her household. Awkward, plain, and a little slow, Catherine is too artless to understand that inside her family she is considered a humiliation and outside of it her potential wealth will poison and obfuscate her every attempt to gain love.

That wealth is the chief attraction for Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), who is beautiful, indolent, and gorgeously ardent toward the bemused and smitten Catherine. He goes to great lengths to acquire her money, even to the point of making noises about eloping. He pulls out all the lovely lines (“Don’t you know that together we have sanctuary?”) and hopes that she can be swayed by casting their courtship as rebellious and deathless, as dashing Heathcliff and his clumsy Cathy.

But Morris has mistimed his advances—at first, Catherine is too devoted to her father to accept, and by the time Morris’ scheme starts to unravel, she has grown into womanhood. It is Catherine, with her still-halting voice and deliberately steadied hands, not Morris or Dr. Sloper, who decides what love is worth.

Washington Square is good-looking but drowsy; there are some very fungusy patches. Leigh’s teeth together/lips apart hesitancy is ideal for the role of Catherine, and if anyone can play the empty-headed and halfhearted period studgod it’s Chaplin. But Maggie Smith overplays the overwritten role of flibbertigibbety Aunt Lavinia, and Judith Ivey is plum awful for the first third of the picture. Holland splashes up the period stodginess with tics—the camera dashes up a staircases ahead of a character, fancy camera angles reveal nothing. At one point, Finney stands up from the dinner table against the candle sconces and delivers a short speech, during which he appears to be on fire. A conflagration would have brought some drama to Washington Square; in the end any impact it does have is Henry’s, not Holland’s.CP

More from WCP