Leo tells two parallel stories, that of recently released convict Stephen (Dedalus?) and his adolescent pen-pal, Leopold Bloom. I know, I know, having such blatant literary references to James Joyces' "Ulysses" is a recipe for disaster, after all, how could anything match what is considered by many to be the greatest work of Western literature of all time? Still, that doesn't stop stalwart first time director Mehdi Norowzian from alluding to the classic, while creating a story all his own. It doesn't hurt that he has such a stellar cast for this small, quiet film, including Joseph Fiennes, Elisabeth Shue, Sam Shepard and, my man, Dennis Hopper.
Shue plays Molly Bloom, a put upon English Professor's wife who is trying to adjust herself and her young daughter to the inner workings of the genteel Southern society she now finds herself in due to her husband's University relocation. She doesn't fare well with the other teacher's wives, and soon comes to believe that her husband is cheating on her with one of his students. This drives her to the bottle, and soon she's showing us everything she learned from Nic Cage during their time together making Leaving Las Vegas. To make matters even worse, she starts fooling around with a surly young house painter and winds up pregnant. Her husband is overjoyed at the news, but she leads him to believe that the child is his. One night he takes their daughter out to get some ice cream and the two of them get flattened by a careless tractor trailer.
She gives birth to a premature, sickly baby which she refuses to see, but coughs up the name Leo to call him. Left with this reminder of her sole transgression, she sinks even deeper into alcoholism and despair, eventually just living off of the insurance money with the painter as her on again, off again, abusive boyfriend. We watch young Leo grow up a quiet, sad, miserable life. At one point when he chastises his mother for smoking so much to protect her health, she informs him that she smoked a pack a day while she was pregnant with him, and that's the reason he is so frail and ill today. Yeah, I know, brutal stuff right? Well, Leo does have one thing going for him, a wonderful brain and an insatiable desire to learn, which he exercises by reading the veritable library of books his father left behind. He also begins to write letters, letters addressed simply to "Man in Prison," but which come to reach the protagonist of our other story, Stephen (Fiennes).
When we meet Stephen, he is being released from prison and into the care of Vic (Shepard), a local restaurateur whose diner/motel serves as a rehabilitation center for cons to help them get back on their feet. Vic takes special pleasure in attempting to solve the larger problems of the world with a hot steaming platter of Shepard's pie. However, Vic good intentions don't always pay the rent and so he's been forced to take on the vile and sadistic Horace (Hopper) as a silent partner. Horace's loathing towards Stephen and the other employees of the restaurant is evident, but no one can anything but stand around and take it since its Horace's money that's keeping the business afloat.
Luckily for Leo, and us, that Stephen is a thoughtful and gifted writer, who even though a convicted murderer, still writes page long reply to his young "friend's" letters. It even seems that Stephen was able to use the time spent in prison to write several volumes of larger work, and now with his release, he'll be able to complete the final one. Leo and Stephen converse about many things, but mostly about Leo's mother. It seems that Stephen has had some experience with an abusive mother and that he would like to come and visit Leo and his mother, so that he could have a "talk" with her.
Norowzian is trying to tell a small story with greater implications. Namely, by trying to transform the Dublin based 'Ulysses' into a southern gothic in the tradition of Tennessee Williams, he is trying to bite off more than he can chew. His casting choices are flawless, and one scene in particular between Fiennes and Hopper stands out as being a key scene in the film. Hopper always brings something to almost every role he plays, and to watch Fiennes go toe-to-toe with him, and actually out-menace the master, is a sight to behold.
Picture: Leo is presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen format that looks very good. The image is clear, but with a dreary, worn-out look, much like the characters that inhabit this film.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track sounds fine, and since much of the dialogue is somewhere between normal speaking and whisper levels, the competent Stereo mix prevents the need to constantly adjust the volume.
Extras: There are a couple of nice Extras on this DVD, including a Behind the Scenes featurette and some pretty in-depth cast interviews. There are also some trailers for additional First Look features.
Conclusion: Leo is certainly ambitious for what it sets out to do, that's not to say it always succeeds. Still, there is definitely an audience for this kind of intelligent filmmaking that is becoming more and more of a rarity these days in the world of American cinema. For those who appreciate films of this nature and can look past the minor flaws of a first time director working with a stellar cast, seek out this film, as its just waiting for the right audience to find it.