Hollywood seems to be having an October sale on botched movies. Self-importance sinks this one like a stone. Mark Wahlberg stars as Leo Handler, a car thief just out of jail and looking for a job with his Uncle Frank (James Caan), whose shady company repairs trains in the New York subway system. There’s family tangles to unravel as well. Leo’s friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix) has taken up with Frank’s stepdaughter Erica (Charlize Theron), who used to be Leo’s girl. When Willie frames Leo for a murder of a yardmaster that Willie committed, Leo goes on the lam, straining the heart condition of his mother, Val (Ellen Burstyn), who can’t persuade her sister Kitty (Faye Dunaway), Frank’s wife, to pull Leo from a mess that has the police and his family hunting him down.
Writer-director James Gray (Little Odessa) wants to cross the racketeering drama of On the Waterfront with Greek tragedy. Big ambitions, and The Yards staggers under their weight. So do most of the actors: Wahlberg is in over his head; Theron wears a dark wig and over-emotes; Dunaway and Burstyn are divas doing drab dialogue. But Phoenix, following his triumph in Gladiator, makes a compelling, complex villain. And Caan, fresh from stealing The Way of the Gun, brings in mythic notes from The Godfather that this film can’t begin to sound on its own.