Would-be screenwriters are advised to catch “Reservation Road” on cable as it provides an object lesson of three awful script clichés that are to be avoided at all costs. Anyone else who finds him- or herself in the unfortunate position of watching the film should pretend they’re looking at the “Mad TV” version of an Oscar-bait movie, complete with turning leaves, dysfunctional family discord and personal tragedy milked for every last drop of pathos.
Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly play a married couple who seemingly have it all — the film opens with the parents attending their son’s cello recital in an idyllic, seaside New England setting. On the way home, they stop for gas and their son stands too close to the road, where he is struck and killed by an SUV driven by lawyer and divorced dad Mark Ruffalo.
Cue cliché No. 1, “Small World, Isn’t It?” You know, those movies where it turns all the characters are connected to each other, no matter how tenuously? It’s the sort of thing Robert Altman did really well and that Altman’s protégé Paul Thomas Anderson went on to do very clumsily. Not only does it turn out that Ruffalo’s ex-wife Mira Sorvino is the dead kid’s music teacher, but Ruffalo also winds up being the lawyer that Phoenix hires when the police aren’t being helpful enough in finding the driver responsible for the boy’s death.
Ruffalo takes the gig, but he’s eaten up with guilt inside, so much so that he goes to the police station at one point to confess. Ah, but the police just think he’s there acting as Phoenix’s attorney, and they keep interrupting him, making it impossible for Ruffalo to come clean. (That’s cliché No. 2, “If We Have This Two-Minute Conversation, The Movie is Over.”)
Phoenix starts neglecting Connelly and their daughter, spending all his time online in chat rooms for parents whose children died of misadventure. He broods and obsesses over the death of his son, driving Connelly to finally confront him in a full-volume shouting match that has to rank as one of the very worst scenes ever between an Oscar-winner and an Oscar-nominee ever filmed. It’s hard to describe how flabbergastingly awful this scene is; they literally just shout at each other at the top of their lungs, like a junior-high theater production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
You’ll be tempted to leave at that point, but you won’t want to miss Phoenix coming to the realization that Ruffalo was the mystery hit-and-run driver, leading us to cliché No. 3, “And Now, A Game of Cat and Mouse.” If, perhaps, we could feel sympathetic toward either of these characters, this revenge plot might go somewhere. But alas, director Terry George’s efforts to tell a story about guilt and grief have devolved into a bunch of stick figures yelling at each other in a subpar “In the Bedroom.”