Promised Land: Van Sant’s Disappointing Collaboration with Mat Damon

The collaboration between the gifted director Gus Van Sant and the gifted actor Matt Damon has resulted in some good pictures, the 1997 Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” “Milk,” as well as idiosyncratic and flawed ones (“Gerry”).

Their latest teaming, Promised Land, is arguably their weakest, a simplistic and conventional message film that wears its ideology and politics of its sleeves.

“Promised Land” boasts an original screenplay by Matt Damon and co-star John Krasinski (based on a story by Dave Eggers), but what they mean is that the tale was written directly for the screen and that it is not based on a previously published material, for there is not much by way of originality in this ecological tale that in its message recalls such films as “Ërin Brocovich,” and others, all superior and more entertaining than this outing.

On the surface, the plot sounds timely and relevant. Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a corporate salesman whose journey from farm boy to big-time player takes an unexpected detour when he arrives in a small town.

You may wonder how did he get there and for what purpose?

It turns out Steve has been dispatched to the rural town of McKinley with his sales partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), when the place is hit hard by the economic crisis. The two shrewd sales executives see McKinley’s citizens as likely to accept their company’s offer for drilling rights to their properties, claiming it’s a much-needed relief that will benefit both sides.

As could be predicted, what seems like an easy job and a short stay for the professional duo becomes more complicated. First there is obstacle from the respected schoolteacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), who feels there should be a serious community-wide consideration of the offer. Then, there is an encounter between Steve and Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a grade school teacher, which evolves in unanticipated direction.

Things gets a bit more interesting dramatically, with the arrival of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski, tall handsome and smiling), a slick environmental activist, whose presence leads to both personal and professional tensions.

The filmmakers don’t trust their material much (with good resons) and so the rivalry between the two men is not just ideological but personal too: They fall for the same woman, a schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt, curcling around stardom).

“Promised land” is not sentimental, as it could have been, but it’s also not as smart as it thinks it is.

At the end, the arguments of the town’s people, proudly declaring their fondness and loyalty for their land, are compelling but also overfamiliar from numerous pictures made over tha past half a century.

It’s hard to understand what Van Sant saw in this text, as it doesn’t display his impressively idiosyncratic sensibility, or his eccentric visual imagery.