It’s late, it’s the final big premiere of Sundance…let’s have some fun, shall we? Well, that should have been the plan for Charles Stone III’s gritty and utterly ridiculous revenge thriller, Lila & Eve, which stars Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez (who previously co-starred in Out of Sight together) as a pair of grieving mothers whose children have been killed. Or are they? There’s a pretty big twist coming that would have worked in a movie that didn’t take itself so darn seriously, but as it stands there’s a reason why this film was unceremoniously dumped in such an unattractive slot.
Davis plays Lila, a working class single mom in Atlanta whose life is ripped apart when eldest son Stephon is gunned down in a drive-by. Unable to keep it together well enough to care for her one remaining son, Justin, she enlists in a support group for mothers of murdered children. While most of the other mothers spout lame platitudes, Lila finds a willing partner in rage when she meets Eve (Lopez), a sassy interior decorator also looking for justice of the vengeful variety. Maybe if the cops (Shea Whigham and Andre Royo) took an interest in the case Lila wouldn’t have reason to do what happens next, but then that would require the film actually be about a mother’s coping with grief, and who wants to watch that when it’s more fun to watch gangsters get gunned down?
The problem is that Stone is trying to have it both ways….well, he’s trying to have it multiple ways. Part Dirty Harry, part Thelma & Louise (the similar title can’t be a coincidence), and part psychological mystery, the film gets ridiculous as the women begin hunting down the alleged killers. Finding any number of random thugs proves incredibly simple for a couple of inexperienced junior sleuths (the cops are always a step behind, of course), and when the first encounter ends with Eve shooting the guy it’s only the first in a growing pile of bodies. Screenwriter Patrick Gilfillan slathers on one sleazy episode after another, which is no small feat given how much time is spent giving away the unnecessary plot swerve. For awhile this seems like it could be enjoyable as a campy guilty pleasure, but alas the whole thing is too strict and serious. Perhaps because that’s what we’ve come to expect from Davis who does her typically strong work as the grieving, desperate Lila, who is nearly swallowed up by her need for vengeance. She gives every role her determined best even when the material doesn’t call for it. Lopez has the better role as the brazen, bloodthirsty Eve. She’s the only one who seems to notice just how off-the-rails this whole thing is and plays the role with the necessary amount of scene-chewing.
Prior to the screening, Stone excitedly stepped on stage and talked about all of the big emotions in the film. He wasn’t lying. Everything is dialed up to 10 and it tramples what could have been a welcome message about grieving women sticking together in tough times. Case in point: a scene in which Lila is confronted by the police and nearly arrested, only to have the women in her support group step in to vouch for her. Nice moment…until they begin lying to protect her, then justifying those lies to themselves. How does this make them better than the criminals they hate? The crowd cheered anyway. Then again, it WAS late. Maybe they were just happy to finally be going home.