So let’s say a curious, cadaverous man with half a face turned up at your door and offered you a box with a button inside… You get to keep the box for 24 hours, he explains.
If you press the button, you’ll be awarded a million dollars cash, tax free. The catch: somewhere, someone you don’t know will die. Would you press the button? Mmm? Would you?
Of course not! You’d call the police and tell them that a man with half a face is going around murdering people. And that’s the problem with Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales followup. It starts silly, gets slowly sillier and then burns out in such a bonfire of silliness it makes the ending of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull seem like a benchmark for cinematic sobriety.
Based on a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone (‘Button, Button’), Kelly rolling-pins the short story premise so thin it’s practically transparent. He then ladels on layer after layer of self-conscious strangeness (silliness) until the audience is forced to just go limp and assume it’s simply not smart enough to fathom the mystery.
Initial what-would-you-do interest in the moral dilemma faced by cash-hungry couple Norma and Arthur (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) quickly fades as Kelly splinters the action off down several genre alleys, never quite deciding which he prefers (sci-fi, horror, supernatural, allegory).
And while Kelly might think he’s channelling a sinister suburban psychodrama in the pulsing vein of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, he’s actually doing a Shyamalan – another born filmmaker and storyteller who should be focusing on refining his filmmaking and storytelling instead of wasting energy trying to reverse-engineer an earlier hit.
There are Donnie Darko-like moments of near-greatness here: a temporal terror that leaves a character suspended in a moulded cube of water; the Lynch-apeing image of an inscrutable Santa Claus blocking the road, ringing a hand bell; and a terrific, title-riffing, Fight Club-style speech from half-face man Frank Langella (“Your home is a box. Your car is a box on wheels. You sit in your home, staring into a box, while the box that is your body withers then dies. Then it is placed in another box...”) But it’s a gloomy, disjointed film with little of Donnie’s angsty likeability and none of its performances. Diaz, with Southern-fried e-yakcent, feels miscast. Marsden is bland, Langella aloof and annoying rather than creepy.
Like Lynch, Kelly is a talented but cryptic writer/ director who inspires both acclaim and anger. Donnie Darko was his Eraserhead. With more selfdiscipline and smarter choices for script sources, he may yet deliver a Blue Velvet.
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