"Mud" is like a "Beasts of the Southern Wild" you can actually understand.
A lot of it takes place on Arkansas rivers and creeks, some lazy and inviting, others sinister. What lies beneath their muddy red waters? Fish for sure, but venomous cottonmouths, too, like that first snake in the Garden of Eden.
The rundown, rural setting of this Southern gothic coming-of-age tale will feel familiar, even to those who have just observed such places as boring blurs of washed-out colors through a car window. Behind the chain-link fences are trailer parks, boat storage, parking lots where teens congregate, feed silos, tawdry motels and markets with names like Piggly Wiggly.
Even though they get around on a dirt bike and have an outboard motor on the fishing skiff, "Mud's" young protagonists, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), invoke memories of the greatest of American rascals, Huck and Tom.
Especially after they find a boat a flood left high in a tree on a remote island. They want to claim it, but quickly discover that there's already someone living in it.
That would be Mud (Matthew McConaughey), on the run from the law, telling tales and radiating danger, but still converting the boys into ready-made disciples. With prosthetic teeth spoiling the movie-star face, McConaughey's friendly, riveting portrayal is framed by an authentic sense of place from writer-director Jeff Nichols, who is a native of Arkansas.
"Mud's" a ripping yarn, but ultimately it's more about matters of the heart - from the lethal hold a roadhouse babe named Juniper (Reece Witherspoon) has on Mud, to the stirrings the opposite sex are beginning to cause in 14-year-old Ellis.
Ellis doesn't know what to do with such powerful new feelings but spends the movie punching guys a lot bigger and older than he is, all in the name of love.
Leonardo DiCaprio's opulent 1920s Long Island mansion where the party never ends is worlds away from "Mud's" houseboats and trailer parks. But Baz Luhrmann's eye-popping adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age classic, "The Great Gatsby," basically makes the same point: Falling in love is something many males aren't very good at. When it does happen - in this case, the moment Gatsby first casts his eyes on a Southern belle named Daisy (Carey Mulligan) - ridiculous, if not tragic, things may ensue.
Gatsby's feelings for Daisy are at the center of the story, complicated by the fact that she's married to someone else (Joel Edgerton). But it's the spell the mysterious millionaire casts on aspiring writer Nick Carraway (Tobey McGuire) that's the real love story here.
Considering that Nick is a flimsy mask for the author - Fitzgerald was the '20s' deeply flawed literary poster boy, Great Depression and all - director Luhrmann pays homage to him, right down to typing words on the screen.
Splendid mansions, sensual speakeasies, antique precursors to Google Maps, a flashy yellow convertible, and all manner of flapper attire fill the screen. Jay-Z and Kanye West join George Gershwin and Jelly Roll Morton on the soundtrack, jumbling time in a very hip way.
It makes for dazzling eye candy, beginning with DiCaprio's smile, even though McGuire has to do the heavy lifting, trying to unravel Gatsby's act of reinventing himself, almost a century before there was any such concept.
Luhrmann's sumptuous "Gatsby" connects with today's audiences, the way his "Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge!" did. Too bad it can't work the same wonders for the story. It was a lyrical, fascinated, disillusioned look at the wretched excesses in its own time, but with his amazing wardrobe and "Old Sport" dialogue, Gatsby feels like a pompous, dusty relic in ours.
"What's all this for?" asks one partygoer early in the movie.
"That's the question," answers another. The audience leaves the theater feeling the same way.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.