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COMMENTARY

Still waiting for a great film on autism

So far, movies about the condition have been unoriginal and inept.

April 10, 2004|Tony Peyser | Special to The Times

The Oscar-winning "Rain Man" (1988) raised considerable awareness about autism. Regrettably, the term "rain man" has become an accepted punch line for someone behaving in a stupid manner. It's not as offensive but is in the same vein as "retard." Call it an unintended consequence of a well-intended film.

"Rain Man" oddly enough inspired several dopey action movies with pretty much the same plot: The only person who saw the murder was (gasp!) an autistic kid -- and now the killer's after him! It's surprising that "Witness" (1985) wasn't remade with an Amish autistic child and this ad line for the poster: "The kid's buggy and he rides in one too!" This spate of autism buddy-cop movies included "Mercury Rising" (1998) with Bruce Willis, "Silent Fall" (1994) with Richard Dreyfuss and TV movie "The Innocent" (1994) with Kelsey Grammer.

Ironically, "Mercury Rising" did not address the controversial issue of rising levels of mercury in certain vaccines, which some people feel may trigger the onset of autism. L.A. Weekly critic Paul Malcolm had this memorable observation about the movie: "Instead of trying to kill the kid for breaking into this top-secret government code, why didn't they just hire him as a consultant?" Another group of autism movies involves some kind of miracle cure. This path was taken in "Molly" (1999) with Elizabeth Shue, a barely released film whose plot echoes parts of "Awakenings" (1990) with Robert De Niro. Another formula could be called "autistic kids' moms behaving badly." Under this heading are the TV movies "Family Pictures" (1993) with Anjelica Huston and "David's Mother" (1994) with Kirstie Alley. Saints they ain't.

"The United States of Leland" has so little to do with autism that it almost doesn't belong on this list. I don't recall actually hearing the word "autism" uttered. Ryan, the child who's stabbed to death, is identified as retarded. But as the father of an autistic teenager, I thought Ryan seemed plenty autistic. Leland is played by Ryan Gosling -- I know, two Ryans are confusing -- and he tantalizingly refuses to confess why he killed this boy. But Leland does admit he feels sorry for Ryan, because he's always being stared at and is never treated like a normal person. The notion of offing anyone out of pity is appalling. Ryan, glimpsed in a few scenes, is not really a character but merely an edgy prop.

Leland could just as easily have decided to mercy-kill other people he thought were miserable because they are black, Jewish, gay, Republican or KCRW subscribers. So, why is the full brunt of this loathsome dramatic device never felt? Because the movie is so utterly inept in its execution. Writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge -- yes, another Ryan -- taught in the L.A. juvenile justice system, and the jail scenes when Leland is being held while awaiting trial are believable. What's unbelievable is that Hoge worked part time with autistic children but displays no understanding of kids with disabilities.

The horrific implications of "The United States of Leland" are also muted because of its lack of originality. It's disheartening to realize that a great movie about autism has yet to be made. Luckily, Warner Bros. bought the rights to the award-winning "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by English novelist Mark Haddon. Writer-director Steve Kloves will adapt the book about a high-functioning autistic teen.

Haddon once worked with autistic children, and his book is filled with humor, compassion and insight. Just thinking of "Curious Incident" wending its way to production takes the bad taste of "The United States of Leland" out of my mouth.

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