Palmer has noble intentions and a winning performance from Timberlake, but it’s thematically undercooked and tonally jarring.
Apple TV+’s Palmer, the latest film from actor/director Fisher Stevens, is a lot of things: a classic tale of personal redemption; a woke study of gender identity; a thoughtful plea for tolerance; a tender love story; an ode to the working class; a mismatched-buddy comedy; an affecting portrait of drug addiction; an ode to bonds both familial and found; and, finally, a courtroom drama, because why the hell not? In other words, Game of Thrones covered less territory. The film is as overstuffed as Russell Crowe at a Golden Corral and possesses less focus than one Mr. Magoo. Its multiple digressions make a sort of sense in that screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero clearly wanted to zhuzh up the tried-and-true redemption template while adding a distinctly 21st-century wrinkle to the proceedings. That all of this somehow still manages to be emotionally affecting is entirely due to the winning lead performance by Justin Timberlake, here playing the title character, a thirty-something, recently-paroled ex-con who returns to his small hometown outside of New Orleans to get his life back in order. Forced to live with his strict but loving grandmother (June Squibb), Palmer soon finds himself playing father to neglected neighbor boy Sam (newcomer Ryder Allen), a flamboyant young man who prefers make-up and princesses to the rough-and-tumble football games that Palmer preferred in his youth. Soon, judgment gives way to acceptance, and Palmer finds himself fighting for custody with the boy’s drug-addicted, long-absent mother (Juno Temple).
Guerriero’s portrait of Sam is an intriguing one. At no point does the film place labels on the boy, save for the hateful, derogatory insults hurled at him by both classmates and adults alike; he is simply a young man who prefers “feminine” things, whether it be pink clothing or the occasional pop of lipstick or a princess Halloween costume. It’s an admirable bit of restraint, and the film clearly has its heart in the right place; unfortunately, in sum, its message of tolerance is far too simplistic and seems pitched at the tween-and-under set, which is a peculiar choice given how hard the rest of the film tries to achieve grittiness and authenticity, what with its graphic sex scenes, occasional bouts of brutal violence, and liberal use of the word “fuck.” For his part, Timberlake goes full Charlize Theron here, attempting to ugly himself up for the role, the lack of shellac revealing acne, Crow’s feet, and dark bags under the eyes. He even sports a semi-unkempt beard (but for the worriers, don’t — he’s still sexy). Yet any number of heartfelt scenes between Palmer and Sam — such as their mutual joy at the arrival of a certificate marking Sam’s admittance into an animated show’s official princess fan club — are entirely at odds with such moments as Temple spitting on her hand to lube Timberlake’s penis for a burst of rough sex. That’s not to say these dichotomous elements, delicate and graphic, can’t exist in the same film, but that they are inelegantly woven here, and that whiplash makes it near impossible to determine from one scene to the next who exactly Palmer is made for.
Elsewhere, Palmer’s tentative romance with Sam’s teacher (Alisha Wainwright) is forgotten as quickly as it’s introduced, and the mystery surrounding Palmer’s incarceration is obvious at best. Stevens opts for a handheld aesthetic that feels immersed in and highlights his characters’ hardscrabble lives, but he too often relies on hideous color grading that saps the film of any sort visual vibrancy, save for those aforementioned pops of pink and red, which is certainly an obvious choice. Through it all, Timberlake carries the film on his stooped shoulders, delivering a committed performance that works to ground the film’s more maudlin tendencies. This is probably the most dramatic heavy lifting Timberlake has had to do in his entire acting career, and whatever else is amiss here, he is at least up to the challenge. It helps that he has a winning, easy-going chemistry with his young co-star Allen, who plays the character of Sam in such an appealingly matter-of-fact way that it is easy to forgive some of his greener moments. Ultimately, this duo is about the only thing to recommend this sincere but tonally confused film, an obvious Oscar-hopeful that never was and never will be.
You can stream Fisher Stevens’ Palmer on Apple TV+ beginning on January 29.