Early in Gran Torino, playing what he’s said may well be his final role, Clint Eastwood growls. I mean that quite literally. His character, a retired auto worker named Walt Kowalski, is attending his wife’s funeral—already looking more pissed off than grief-stricken—when he sees his teenage granddaughter sauntering through the church with an exposed navel ring. Naturally, this offends Walt’s sense of decorum, and we need to know that he disapproves. But does he narrow his eyes, shake his head, look away in disgust? Bah! Too subtle. Close-up on Eastwood as he actually emits an audible cartoon “GRRRRR!” It’s impossible not to laugh, and I dearly wish I could convince myself that Gran Torino was intended to be a comedy, since the jaw-dropping howlers keep coming fast and furious. In truth, I believe Eastwood has made the 21st-century equivalent of Reefer Madness: an earnest treatise that blunders into high camp.
It’s a shame, because the basic premise, conceived by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk (Schenk wrote the screenplay), is ambitious and arresting. After shooing away his various no-good relatives, who want to put him in a rest home, Walt is left alone in the suburban Detroit neighborhood where he’s lived his entire life. But he’s the last white man standing. All around him now are Hmong immigrants, who came to the States after fighting on our side in Vietnam but are indistinguishable to Walt from the Asians he fought in Korea. When a Hmong kid named Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s beloved 1972 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation, our unrepentantly racist hero finds himself drawn against his will into the lives of his next-door neighbors, and gradually discovers that he has more in common with these hard-working, staunchly traditional foreigners than he does with his own spoiled-rotten family. You’ll know when the epiphany hits, too, because he looks into the mirror and says aloud, “Jesus, I have more in common with these gooks than I do with my own spoiled-rotten family!”
Unfortunately, that moment is fairly typical of Schenk’s script, which is so tone-deaf to the vernacular of the working-class American bigot that Gran Torino often plays like a Saturday Night Live parody of some other “real” movie—perhaps Crash. Now, I have no doubt that there are plenty of old-timers in this country who have yet to undergo sensitivity training, but Walt can’t speak even half a dozen words without including at least one patently offensive racial epithet. And these over-the-top insults don’t so much roll off of his tongue as they leap out of his mouth, as if Walt suffers from some bizarro variation on Tourette’s syndrome that you’d name after Archie Bunker. (Eventually, someone will put together a hilarious YouTube montage that cuts straight from “You’re wrong, eggroll!” to “Get me another beer, dragon lady!” to “Let’s get some more of that good gook food!” and so forth. It’ll be at least five minutes long.)
Again, I’d like to believe that all of this is intentionally funny, because I laughed more at Gran Torino than I did at any of last year’s ostensible comedies. (If you plan to see it, get drunk first.) But the film’s risible self-importance, within the context of what otherwise seems like a goofy exploitation flick, ultimately grows too emphatic to ignore. Thao’s reluctant involvement with the gang leads to some deadly serious violence, and Walt’s climactic showdown with the bad guys, which takes a nicely unexpected turn, makes it abundantly clear that Eastwood and Schenk want to say something potent and incisive about what it means to be an American. By that time, though, you’ve done way too much involuntary giggling to nod sagely.