Adapted for the screen by Matt Damon and John Krasinski (known most widely from “The Office”), based on a story by Dave Eggers, “Promised Land” stars Matt Damon as Steve Butler, a deceitful salesman who buys clothes that help him look local just before he begins calling on economically distressed residents. Frances McDormand as Steve’s partner, Sue Thomason, is equally manipulative, trying to hoodwink the residents until science teacher and retired engineer Frank Yates, a wonderful Hal Holbrook, calmly offers reasonable objections via confrontational questions.
Soon another problem arises when Dustin Noble (Krasinski) arrives to make ecological charges. As company reps Steve and Sue redouble their efforts, the conflict foregrounds thorny problems, including the economic downturn pressuring farmers and corrupt local politics. Further complicating the story, elementary teacher Alice and Steve begin a romantic relationship in a totally unnecessary subplot.
Shot on beautiful farms in western Pennsylvania, the fictional town of McKinley provides a perfect backdrop for the debate. Cast against type and thereby making it more disarming, Damon brings his thoroughly likable, easy-going charm to a dishonest character and McDormand provides ample attitude and humor. Most supporting roles feel just right, a few a bit contrived, but the basic local flavor rings true.
Damon had committed to directing “Promised Land” before his acting schedule made it impossible. He says firing himself as the director was the best move he made as a producer because Damon then hired the solid Gus Van Sant. Van Sant brings to life well-written characters with humorous dialogue that doesn’t sacrifice an undercurrent of serious considerations. Despite its minor faults, it’s gratifying to have a film about something that isn’t juvenile, hostile, or brainless. Instead “Promised Land” profiles an on-going, important problem that deserves attention and in an accessible, entertaining manner. At a Landmark Theatre.