‘Lila and Eve’: Revenge thriller doesn’t deserve Viola Davis’ adept acting

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If any actress in modern movie history has played more tragic mother characters than the brilliant Viola Davis, I’d love to hear your nominations.

• In “Doubt,” Davis had an Oscar-nominated extended cameo as the mother of a boy who might have been molested by a priest.

• When the title character in “Antwone Fisher” finally tracks down his mother, who gave birth to him in jail and had to give him up but never tried to reclaim him upon her release, it’s Viola Davis time.

• Davis received another nomination for her role in “The Help” as a Southern maid in the 1960s who lost her only son in an industrial accident.

• As James Brown’s mother, Susie, in “Get On Up” (a fictionalized version of true events), Davis gives up her son when he’s a little boy and doesn’t see him again until she shows up unannounced backstage at the Apollo.

• In “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” Davis plays a professor who hasn’t spoken to her son in years.

Now comes “Lila and Eve,” with Davis playing Lila Walcott, a devoted single mother trying to protect her two wonderful sons while raising them in a dangerous Atlanta neighborhood — and by the time you’re settling into your seat to watch this well-acted but lurid and ultimately implausible thriller, the oldest son has been gunned down, and Lila is transformed from a loving, upbeat, positive force into a pill-popping, grief-stricken, revenge-seeking, borderline sociopath.

After Lila’s college-bound 18-year-old son Stephon (Aml Ameen) is killedas an innocent bystander in a drive-by shooting, Lila joins a support group of grieving mothers. Frustrated by the touchy-feely advice from the group leader (she advises the moms to “get a hobby” among other ways of moving on) and infuriated by the police department’s indifference, Lila finds common ground with fellow grieving mother Eve (Jennifer Lopez), who urges Lila to take matters into her own hands and find the scum responsible for Stephon’s murder.

This is when “Lila and Eve” morphs from gritty, heartfelt drama into a B-movie version of “Thelma & Louise” meets “Death Wish.” Lopez (who walked the wronged-woman vigilante path in the equally preposterous “Enough” in 2002) is wildly miscast as the scheming, cold-blooded, manipulative Eve, who keeps walking Lila into what should be suicidal encounters with career criminals. A scene in which the two women glam it up and hit a nightclub in order to gain intel is pure camp. They giggle while getting ready as if they’re a couple of 22-year-olds hitting the town, not two fortysomething women still reeling from the murders of their respective sons.

Even though Lila and Eve have zero experience as investigators and no background to speak of when it comes to handling weapons, they turn into a super-duo of sorts — tracking down Stephon’s gunman, the gunman’s boss and various other thugs, and coming out on top in one violent encounter after another. It’s ridiculous.

Meanwhile, a cop named Holliston (Shea Whigham, Nucky’s hard-luck brother in “Boardwalk Empire”) befriends Lila and then slowly, SLOWLY begins to suspect Lila might have something to do with the rash of murders within the Atlanta low-life community. Whigham’s a fine actor, but he’s stuck with not one but two scenes in which his character has to comport himself like an idiot just so the movie can be the movie it wants to be.

Davis (who was an executive producer on the film) gives a strong performance, as if she were acting in one of those many prestige projects lighting up her resume. It’s a noble try, but this dreck is beyond saving.

[s3r star=2/4]

Samuel Goldwyn Films presents a film directed by Charles Stone III and written by Patrick Gilfillan. Running time: 94minutes. Rated R (for violence and language). Opens Friday at AMC South Barrington 30 and on demand.

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