Kevin Costner is one of the finest un-flashy actors of our time.
Costner rarely strives for the operatic, over-the-top moves of a Johnny Depp or a Sean Penn, but he’s as comfortable and as natural as it gets on the big screen. Pretty much past the days of playing rakish rebels and dashing leading men, Costner — who just turned 60 — is still one of those actors whose mere attachment to a film gives it a certain cachet.
In writer-director Mike Binder’s uneven but provocative “Black or White,” Costner plays a grandfather for the first time in his career.
A grandfather grieving for his longtime wife, who was killed in a car accident.
A grandfather who has suddenly become a single parent to a biracial little girl.
A grandfather who uses the n-word when berating the father of that little girl.
A grandfather with a serious drinking problem.
It’s one of the most complex characters Costner has played, and he delivers an intense, strong, darkly funny and moving performance in a movie that dares to raise issues and address situations that still make a lot of people uncomfortable.
Costner’s Elliott Anderson and his wife (played by Jennifer Ehle in flashback and dreamlike sequences) have raised their 7-year-old granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell in one of the more charming kid-actor performances in memory) since the girl was born.
Why did the grandparents have Eloise? SPOILER ALERT. Their estranged teenage daughter died giving birth to Eloise. And Eloise’s father, a half-dozen years older than their daughter, was a crack addict and small-time crook who couldn’t take care of himself, let alone a baby.
And that’s just the beginning of the melodrama.
It’s clear Elliott loves his granddaughter, but it was her grandma who handled the all the details like combing Eloise’s hair and making her breakfast and getting her to school. Eloise patiently walks her grandfather through the paces — no small feat given Elliott could be three-plus sheets to the wind at any given time.
Elliott’s drinking escalates to the point where Eloise’s well-being could be an issue. Enter Eloise’s fraternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spender), a life force who runs a number of small businesses out of her home and is taking care of an extended family of relatives. Now that Eloise’s maternal grandmother is gone and it’s just the irascible, hard-drinking Elliott looking after Eloise, Rowena turns to her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a hotshot attorney, to sue for custody of Eloise.
“He has a problem with black people,” says Jeremiah in Rowena’s first meeting with the legal team.
Rowena flinches. She says she never made such a claim.
“He has a problem with black people,” repeats Jeremiah, making it clear that if they’re to win this case, they’re going to have to play that card.
Elliott’s team will be equally aggressive in going after Eloise’s father, Reggie (Andre Holland), who is back on the scene, claiming he’s clean and sober and expressing the desire to connect with his daughter for the first time.
Things aren’t going to get ugly. They’re going to start ugly.
Binder (who teamed up with Costner in “The Upside of Anger,” one of the better films of 2005) based “Black or White” in part on some of his own family experiences. Binder doesn’t shy away from some difficult issues and a few blunt moments that will make you wince, e.g., when Elliott refers to Reggie as a “street n—–,” or when the fiercely protective Rowena finally faces the truth about one of her own family members and unleashes the full extent of her fury.
The custody hearing, at times about as realistic as one of those afternoon-judge TV shows, does have some powerful moments, as when Elliott gives a speech in which he thinks he’s making some great points but is actually doing nearly as much harm to himself as Jack Nicholson’s character did to his own case in “A Few Good Men.” At times the proceedings take great leaps of poetic license, with the judge constantly warning Rowena to sit down and be quiet but never doing anything about her outbursts.
Costner’s performance is filled with memorable moments, from his pitch-perfect reaction to his wife’s death, to his earnest attempts to get more involved with Eloise’s day-to-day activities, to the stupid choices he makes after he’s had too much to drink. Octavia Spencer owns every scene she’s in. Mackie does fine work playing the straight man to Costner and to Spencer.
Even with a somewhat disappointing climactic confrontation that leads to a predictable resolution, “Black or White” is a timely reminder of how none of us is really color-blind.
Relativity presents a film written and directed by Mike Binder. Running time: 121 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language, thematic material involving drug use and drinking, and for a fight). Opens Friday at local theaters.