‘Stonewall’
Director:
Roland Emmerich
Stars: Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The idea of a Stonewall Riots film from the guy who made “Independence Day,” “The Patriot” and “The Day After Tomorrow” isn’t a terrible idea. It’s actually a good one. The scuffle that birthed the gay rights movement in earnest deserves a splashy populist saga that uses the language of big, dumb mainstream movies to normalize it into cinematic myth. What’s more, director Roland Emmerich specializes in ensemble casts that, no matter how stocked with sickly caricatures, could attack the event from multiple angles, thus showing the diverse forces that led to a violent and galvanizing protest. Emmerich is also proudly out, meaning he won’t hold back on making a multiplex movie that’s very, unabashedly and super gay.

And yet “Stonewall” unaccountably isn’t much of a Roland Emmerich movie. It’s broad but rarely stirring, muted but not subtle. And it’s focused too tightly on a group that ultimately offers little insight into the gay rights movement, while ignoring and even quietly tarnishing other parts of the movement. The heroes are the street kids who technically started the riot at the Village’s Stonewall Inn. Jeremy Irvine plays Danny Winters, the token shy Midwestern boy who shows up in New York with a few bucks to his name and is immediately sucked into a cadre of outspoken rats. Led by a sometime transvestite alternately known as Ray and Ramona (Jonny Beuchamp), they hang on stoops, sleep a dozen to a shady room and turn tricks to make what little cash they have. 

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They’re also not particularly engaged politically, despite regularly getting the blunt end of a police baton or being shlepped to police stations when carousing in the titular bar. Danny finds himself drawn — seduced, really, to the strains of Procul Harem — by a real activist, Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who is all about non-violent protest, and equally about preying on younger men. Trevor isn’t the villain of the piece, but he is the guy who’s wrong — about how to enact real change, about where the movement is about to head and, perhaps most importantly, about the true meaning of love. Other activists are seen but briefly, but the film takes the side of the innocents who only get involved once they’ve finally had enough, and on a whim. (Their fury is in part fueled by Judy Garland’s recent passing, which really was a factor.)

A normal Roland Emmerich movie would have been about the vast community and almost certainly would have built to a rousing second half, when what seemed like just another police raid on the Stonewall Inn escalated into spontaneous protests. Failing that, at least it would have been naughty. (Emmerich is an avid collector of racy gay art.) “Stonewall” kicks off with some endearingly bad dick jokes. Upon first arriving in town, Danny is badly hit on by an old queen, who worries he’s not eating right. “What do you mean? I just had two hot dogs,” Danny replies. The man’s retort: “Want a third?” 

And yet “Stonewall” soon chills out and Emmerich defers to Jon Robin Baitz’s script, which stays with the apolitical but abused kids. They’re out and proud but not particularly interesting and mostly interchangeable. There’s a wan love triangle between Danny, Ray/Ramona and Trevor that eats up a lot of the film, plus regular, fat dips into Danny’s past in Kansas. By the time it gets to the riots the film is nearly over. (We don’t even check on the subsequent other nights of rioting.) It all feels dutiful, not passionate; when Irvine's Danny screams "GAY POWER" as the "Do the Right Thing"-style assault begins, it has all the rage of an eight grader doing his best Stanley Kowalski.

The usual Emmerich-style approach to “Stonewall” would have been dodgy, maybe even offensive, but so is this one, which gives more time to the police — who claim they’re simply trying to bust the Mafioso-linked Stonewall owner played by no less Ron Perlman, which casting is only half as awesome as it sounds — than it does the activists who were trying to achieve equality before Danny and gang became whimsically politicized. Let this “Stonewall” be quickly forgotten so another trashy populist can take a swing.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge