Justin Timberlake Stumbles Back to the Big Screen in Palmer

For a heady few years, not too long ago, we thought that Justin Timberlake might be an actor. More than an actor, even: a movie star. He’d charmed so thoroughly in his gigs hosting Saturday Night Live, though of course his success in that arena came from the happy surprise that he was funny for a singer. That crucial distinction went mostly ignored, though, and Timberlake was jammed into a ton of movies over a very short period of time, roughly 2011 to 2013, hailed to us as a new kind of Cher or, I guess, Frank Sinatra.

There was, on the auspicious side of things, David Fincher’s The Social Network, in which he played cocky manipulator Sean Parker. It was a supporting role, but Timberlake got to say one of the film’s defining lines. (“You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”) And then there was the rest of the stuff: a drab romantic comedy called Friends With Benefits, the strenuously R-rated comedy Bad Teacher, the disappointing sci-fi actioner In Time. In 2013, Timberlake once again briefly delighted in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, a pleasant little dollop that undid some of the shame of that same year’s Runner Runner, an embarrassingly awful movie about a slick gambler getting in over his head. After that, Timberlake mostly retreated to music, and to the animated Trolls films. (The less said of Wonder Wheel, his 2017 outing with Woody Allen, the better.) He’d poked around at the movie star thing, and it just hadn’t worked out.

Now, Timberlake is reemerging from his adopted home state of Montana to try his hand in front of the camera again, this time on a more modest scale. His new film is Palmer (Apple TV+, January 29), a small drama directed by Fisher Stevens, about a recent ex-con trying to get his feet back under him. He is, as is cinematic tradition, aided in his growth by a child, his grandmother’s neighbor. That kid, Sam (Ryder Allen), is picked on at school because he’s into supposedly “girly” things, like dolls and princesses and wearing dresses and makeup. Will this decidedly 21st century child help the stunted, nearing-40 Millennial learn to live again on the backroads of rural Louisiana? Reader, he will.

The setup for Palmer, written by Cheryl Guerriero (who also wrote the 2006 Paris Hilton vehicle National Lampoon’s Pledge This!), is agreeable enough. Despite years’ worth of accumulated cliché, the kid-teaches-adult genre can still yield some fruit—if the kid actor is right, and the sentiment is pitched carefully on the cozier side of cloying. With Palmer’s added element of contemporary, and long overdue, discourse about gender, the film had the wan makings of something respectable enough, a gentle, low-key way for Timberlake to return to the movie star ecosystem.

In practice, though, Palmer feels as cynical and flimsy as Timberlake’s old big-budget stabs at movie stardom. The film doesn’t actually show character growth so much as it tells you it’s happening. Palmer goes from reticence to caring about young Sam—abandoned by his vaguely drug-addicted shambles of a mother (Juno Temple)—to doting father figure in the flash of a few scenes. Palmer develops because that’s what stories like this require him to do. Stevens, Guerriero, and Timberlake add nothing of the individual detail that would make this specific film, this one man’s journey, mean anything on its own. 

As for the matter of Sam’s gender expression, it’s handled with a bare minimum of sensitivity—but never with any real nuance. There’s not even much discussion of it. Sam’s non-conforming identity is ultimately pretty incidental, used as a mere crutch to underscore Palmer’s innate goodness and compassion. The movie seems utterly unconcerned with the realities of Sam’s life, his future, his needs beyond the close male care provided by Palmer. He’s a piece of the Palmer puzzle, slotted in next to Palmer’s love interest, teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), whose presence as one of very few Black people in the film serves as proof that good ol’ Louisiana boy Palmer isn’t racist.

The film is going for up-close, intimate, spare human drama, but it cuts every corner it can to get to its emotional payoff. Timberlake goes for man-of-few-words (or Man of the Woods) stoicism and comes off just as passively invested as the rest of the movie; the point is that he’s doing it, not how it’s done or what is being said. 

Palmer is a sneaky kind of vanity project. It’s not one that gestures toward or further emboldens Timberlake’s shining celebrity profile. Instead, it works to shrink and reshape Timberlake into a serious actor with a political heart, imbued with a mission toward social justice. It feels more like a calculating read of the moment than a genuine conviction. Even Mark Wahlberg, in the upcoming drama now called Joe Bell, has made a more earnest attempt at tackling a cause far from his lived experience. Palmer is the microwave meal version of that flawed but decent film, hasty and cold at the center. It provokes no sympathy, let alone the warm, “welcome back” regard for Timberlake it’s determined to stoke. At least Runner Runner 2 would have been something closer to sincere.

Where to Watch Palmer:

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