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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014

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Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Won't Back Down," in theaters now.
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Won't Back Down," in theaters now.

Cliched "Won't Back Down" really should have

I'm sure the people behind "Won't Back Down" knew what they were doing when they decided to release this public school politics firebomb to theaters when they did.

Between the heated discussions resulting from its subject matter and the buzz generated by its star-studded cast (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter are the top-billed draws), opening this "inspired by actual events" movie – in Wisconsin theaters especially – is essentially like lobbing an active grenade into a crowd and telling each side the other was responsible.

And you know what? It was the smartest thing they could have done. Button-pushy themes and award-winning cast aside, "Won't Back Down" is what happens when you Mad Libs the "underdog movie" archetype. It's got nothing to offer cinematically speaking, so plucking the country's discords is a genius piece of movie marketing.

"Won't Back Down" is driven by Maggie Gyllenhaal's Jamie Fitzpatrick, a lower-middle class single mother juggling two jobs and a daughter with dyslexia. When she discovers the poor standard of education her daughter receives at her inner-city public school, Jamie goes full Erin Brockovich to overhaul the system.

She's reluctantly joined by teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a struggling mother herself, who acts as the proverbial inside man, and – to a lesser extent -- the school's young music teacher Michael (Oscar Isaac), who surprises no one when he ends up smitten with Jamie within five minutes of their meet cute. Their challenge: to shake the school's teachers out of their cynicism and take independent control of their elementary school through a loophole law, all the while battling the school board's stagnant bureaucracy and the teachers' union's staunch opposition.

Against all odds (and to the expectations of any half-conscious audience member), Jamie's stubbornness leads her mission to victory. I'd apologize for the spoiler, but I'm not sorry. The plot is so methodical it can be worked out over its trailer from the comfort of your own home, for free.

If anything, "Won't Back Down" should be sorry for crafting a film so ironically uninspired. Those curious enough to see this yawner in theaters can navigate its plot points with all of the difficulty of a 5-year-old's Connect the Dots puzzle. Even the the movie's later attempts at powerful character revelations are set up with such deliberate and obvious means I felt like I was sitting through a kid's retelling of a bad knock-knock joke.

If anything is keeping me from completely skewering "Won't Back Down," it's the acting. Gyllenhaal, Davis and others do deliver great performances; unfortunately, it's not enough to warrant wasting two hours sitting through this pre-packaged attempt at moving drama.

The two leading ladies have plenty of better titles between them ("The Help," "Sherrybaby," "Doubt," "Secretary") in which you can watch them do the same thing with better material. "Won't Back Down" is just empty box office bait fishing for a return off a formula that's been done to death.

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