Courtesy Photo
Opened: Friday, March 20, 1998
Rated: R
Directed by Richard Linklater

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jilianna Margulies, Dwight Yoakam & Chloe Webb

Pretty-boy heist picuture offers more than just swoony stars

"The Newton Boys" is being marketed as a pretty boy picture for women too old for Leonardo DiCaprio fantasies and too young lust after Tom Selleck.

It's a shameful gimmick -- especially those TV ads featuring toothy grins from heartthrobs Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke and Skeet Ulrich -- with potential for backlash that might just hurt a picture which has much more to offer that swoony movie stars.

The true story (or as true as they get in Hollywood) of a gentlemanly band of brother bank robbers in the 1920s, "The Newton Boys" takes many cues from "The Sting," without losing its sense of self.

Joyous ragtime tunes accompany the bank heists and the boys turn on the 200-watt charm to flirty flappers everywhere they go. The production design, location scouting, costumes and makeup give the film a delicious sense of time and place. But its finest feature is the acting.

Playing Willis, the brains of the organization, McConaughey gives his best performance yet. Charming, determined and holding a grudge against the legal system for a false conviction, Willis rallies his brothers (Hawke, Ulrich and Vincent D'Onofrio) and plots a string of midnight bank robberies that makes them rich beyond anything they imagined as Oklahoma farm boys.

Director Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise") plays the heist scenes tongue-in-cheek since the criminals are the heroes here, but he also lets each of the characters breathe, providing the film plenty of personality.

McConaughey, Hawke, Ulrich and D'Onofrio understand the complexities of their sibling relationships. While there's ample brotherly rough-housing, the film has a genuine sense of family that comes through especially in Ulrich's portrayal of Joe Newton, the youngest, most straight-laced brother who joins the gang reluctantly out of a feeling of obligation.

McConaughey also shares strong, honest moments with Julianna Margulies (from "E.R."), who plays his lover, Louise, a cigar stand clerk who is a little slow on the uptake when it comes to the Newton clan's line of work.

"The Newton Boys" has some problems with pacing. As good as the heist scenes and love scenes are, the times in between often languish. But what the film lacks in tautness, it makes up for in enthusiasm.

Linklater is a director who can employ old-fashioned storytelling techniques with a modern cinematic eye, and he effortlessly mixes into the film silent movie cinematography and old-school musical montages. It's quite a relief to see a sequence set to song that doesn't look like it was edited for MTV.

The director, who adapted the screenplay with Claude Stanush from Stanush's biography of the Newtons, even adds trivial period references (like a dig on screen cowboy Tom Mix's "kinda fruity" outfits) that further authenticate the picture, even though they will likely be lost on 90 percent of the audience.

The last act of the film recounts how the Newtons, who robbed literally hundreds of banks in their careers, served minuscule jail sentences after their capture during a bungled train robbery that left one of them in the hospital with multiple bullet wounds.

Once again Linklater uses traditional means -- in this case where-are-they-now freeze-frames -- in most unusual ways: The film isn't over when the freeze frames are through. He also runs the credits over interview footage of the real Newtons, aged 80 and up.

"The Newton Boys" will pass muster with those women stuck between DiCaprio and Selleck, but it's also a guy movie, a mom and dad movie, and even a movie folks who remember the Newtons would enjoy.

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