As well-intentioned misfires go, it’s difficult to imagine as disastrous a dud as “Stonewall,” an earnest dramatization of real-life events that winds up being as lamentably flat-footed as it is inexcusably inauthentic.
The riveting true story of the 1969 riots at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn — which jump-started the contemporary gay rights movement — hovers enticingly at the edges of this starchy, romanticized tale, in which a scrub-faced kid from the sticks arrives three months before the events, the better to acquit his duties as audience proxy in the face of the coming firestorm. Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) has been kicked out of his rural Indiana home after he was discovered mid-tryst with one of his football teammates; when he gravitates toward the corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue, he’s adopted by a demimonde of homeless gay and transgender teens, who immediately invite him to flop with them at one of the neighborhood’s many squalid, overcrowded crash pads.
Danny’s best friend in the bunch is Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a doe-eyed hustler who entices wholesome Danny into the netherworld of turning tricks for quick cash. But Danny is far more entranced by Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a slinkily charismatic member of the Mattachine Society, a nascent gay rights organization favoring the respectability politics of suits and ties, professional assimilation and unimpeachable personal comportment.
Seesawing between Danny’s New York education and amber-lit flashbacks to his troubled family life in the Midwest, “Stonewall” follows the tedious, predictable contours of most fictional coming-of-age journeys, leaving such fascinating real-life characters as Mattachine activist Frank Kameny, transgender pioneer Marsha P. Johnson and Stonewall Inn manager Ed Murphy on the sidelines. As portrayed by Ron Perlman, Murphy most notably figures in one of the film’s most sordid sequences, when Danny is roped into a seedy sexual encounter with characters who seem to be based on Gore Vidal and a cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover.
Meanwhile, the perpetually confused Danny is serenaded by the besotted Ray with dreamy fantasies populated by Judy Garland and California palm trees, while serious-minded Trevor mimeographs pamphlets and urges Danny to come to the next Mattachine meeting around the corner. Inevitably, they wind up in bed. “Something happened to me when I saw you at the Stonewall,” Trevor says to Danny at one point. “I kind of fell into deep water.”
That’s not even the cheesiest dialogue that drips and oozes through a movie that plays less like an urgent slice of still- relevant history than the book of a crowd-pleasing musical that never got off the ground. That “Stonewall” suffers from such stagey artificiality can no doubt be traced to its script, written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz. But equal blame surely lies with director Roland Emmerich, who is better known for such confections as “Independence Day” and “Anonymous” than gritty, hardscrabble realism. (It bears noting that last year’s “Pride,” about another pivotal event in gay history, possessed a similarly honeyed, idealistic quality, but never at the expense of believability.)
The many faults of “Stonewall” surely don’t lie with its stars (although Winters’s scowl begins to look more petulant than tortured as time goes on): Beauchamp infuses Ray with genuine pathos and vulnerability, Rhys Meyers delivers a palpable frisson as a serial seducer, and the rest of the misfits, freaks and lost souls Danny befriends — played by Caleb Landry Jones, Vladimir Alexis and Otoja Abit as Marsha P. Johnson — make a vivid impression despite the fact that they’re relegated to little more than providing local color.
But that is precisely the problem with “Stonewall,” in which stock characters overpower singular, fully realized people, and in which spontaneity and lived-in history are banished in favor of billboard slogans and theatrical set pieces. It’s a shame that the beginning of a movement that has come so far, so fast has been reduced to a trite, calculatingly manipulative reenactment. Rather than the sophisticated telling the tale deserved, “Stonewall” winds up being as shallow and artless as the wide-eyed naif at its center.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexual content, profanity throughout, some violence and drug use. 129 minutes.