An elephantiasis-afflicted, dismal anti-epic of undying malfeasance, Kevin Costner’s The Postman is positively drunk on its own grotesque patriotism and egotistical self-interest. From the man who directed Dances with Wolves and starred in (and may have directed) Waterworld, The Postman is an engorged attempt to flare-up and diamond-gild every operatic cue and hyperbolic shot in those films to breach the bulwark of common sense and invade the realm of rococo drama. Fittingly, it is a missed target of a distinctly Kevin Costner-esque caliber. While Dances was a questionable but undeniably poetic epic that suggested something of America’s own mythic grandeur, The Postman finds the bottom falling out as Western pastiche becomes accidental Western parody.
A conscientious objector to humility, estranged from anything resembling decency, The Postman is a reservoir of deep-seated negligence and monumentally confused personal follies on Costner’s part. It’s the assumed lightning strike of his decade-long ascent to the top of the A-list that curdled into his personal desecration, as though he were engaging in vigilante justice against the cinematic world. It is a wounded animal of a film, an ostracized, omnivorous beast, an Americana fable with the boisterous ramblings of Frank Capra undercut by secret aspirations to join the ranks of the Looney Tunes. There’s no oxygen to be found, of course, because everyone in the cast and crew was busy throughout the duration of the production, waiting around with baited or handheld breath in fear that exhaling would blow away the film’s tentative, tenuous obelisk to its own flailing self esteem and grandiosity.
Set in 2013 after a third World War left the US an empty void of barren, indifferent human activity, Costner naturally casts America’s lot in with his holiness himself, with Costner playing an undisclosed man who escapes from the vile renegade plague army scorching the land (lead by Will Patton) only to discover a satchel of mail from decades before. Not content to merely return people’s mail, as if on the back of the insouciant charms of his rugged good looks, he erects a billowing monument to human civilization by resurrecting the platonic ideal of modern, civilized society: The Postal Service! Which, in turn, forms the girders of a new America, since, you know, Costner hadn’t played Jesus enough already, and he just felt a hankering to imagine himself the Postal Service Jesus.
Of course, when he’s not playing Pony Express and pretending he’s Buffalo Bill, he’s busy being a fertilizer salesman, fulfilling all his oddest desires and imbibing in a pile-on of all manner of hypothetical blockbuster detritus. This is the kind of bad movie where it all comes together, from the lugubrious, swooning helicopter tracking shots, to James Newton Howard’s quintessentially late-‘90s false-opera score, to a lion for some reason, to the most breathlessly illogical monologues that Costner gifts himself routinely and unwraps with his furrowed brow and sullen-philosopher stubble. My personal favorite is a delectably loopy close-up intrusion of a mini-story about a man who can’t do anything meaningful for Costner’s impromptu postal service but gets a pass because he … got a tattoo in Vietnam.
Costner’s lightning streak of major successes – Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves, JFK, Robin Hood, The Bodyguard – afforded him a demigod-like status in Hollywood for the early parts of the decade, undeniably the reason why the dueling disasters of Waterworld and The Postman were financed without question. His mortality clarified by the humbling one-two punch of disaster, Costner reconsidered his hubris, corroborated his newfound humility with the corollary of restrained craft, and accepted more quiet, thoughtful positions in films that culminated in his third, and by far best, directorial effort Open Range, the only one of his three behind-the-scenes films where he exhibits a willingness to feel out drama with breathing room rather than flattening his work with the grandstanding ambition of his bandaged volition.
I mean, keep in mind: Costner playing a fish man who drinks his own piss is actually refreshing and quaint in comparison to the comically lugubrious hushed-awe allegory of his postal efforts, cruxing the fate of civilization around that most mighty and holy of institutions: Tom Petty. I mean, the Postal System! But, seriously, The Postman is the culmination of Costner’s decade-long commitment to resurrecting, pacifying, and then violently stabbing America with his glowing cinematic monologues that emerge more as embodiments of America’s grotesque egotism. So Tom Petty, that chronicler of chroniclers, naturally appears. As himself. Because the world needed a post-apocalyptic commune held together by Tom Petty’s charisma. And Costner desperately needed to produce a three hour, 80 million dollar masturbation extravaganza for him to ejaculate on our nation’s sense of humility by presumptively gifting us the “Music and the Post Office connect people and save our souls” travelling carnival we all didn’t know we needed.
I mean, heavens, Shakespeare enters the fray within minutes of the film beginning. It’s like Costner’s irrevocable test of taste and dividing line to separate the people who will be wooed by his pompous airs and the sensible minded folks who are having none of it. By opening with among its most cartoonishly obnoxious, ill-considered gestures, Costner plants his phallic 80 million dollar flag in the sand and dares anyone who will judge him to turn away from his brooding, sober, solemn, over-written drivel masquerading as constant epiphany. And, indeed, it is difficult to turn away. As a consolation, at least the shamelessness of the fearless patriotism is so perseverant in its sloppiness that, somewhere between the Shakespeare and the blindingly homoerotic finale with Costner and Will Patton’s slobbering, salivating villain flailing around with one another, it all turns into legitimate self-parody.
As an exercise in perversion, it’s too long to survive its own eccentricities, but as a sheer excuse to bask in Costner’s wounded, superhuman ambition and hung-over Middle-Americana, Rockwellian pastoralism, The Postman is some accidental cock-eyed, dazzling disasterpiece, a fiasco of cinema that just won’t quit. Costner’s under-coordinated ego massively flopping around the screen is a sheer delight, even when it’s sheer misery.
Score: 5/10 (only for presumably accidental comic brio)