Pros: Some original ideas, Richard Kelly keeps growing as a filmmaker
Cons: Cameron Diaz, music, poses too many questions than answers, tried too hard
Richard Kelly is an interesting filmmaker. After breaking out onto the scene with his cult (now mainstream) classic, Donnie Darko, he made a big splash on the cinema scene with his daring visuals, plot structure, and directed performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. A few years later after years of speculation as to what he was working on, he released his sophomore Southland Tales with an all-star cast, big budget, and interesting dystopian world.
It turned out, however, to be a cracked egg as it bombed, got terrible reviews, and I still find it unwatchable to this day. Fast forward to 2009 where his latest effort, The Box, starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, has been trumped down our throats for the past month in an effort to push it to topple the currently box office leaders. If it beats that Michael Jackson documentary I will be very surprised as the word of mouth regarding people leaving the theatre tonight was not so good.
The Box is a rehash of the Twilight Zone episode Button, Button (also a short story by Richard Matheson who brought you I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, and Stir of Echoes) where a couple living in Virginia find a box left on their doorstep in the early morning hours only to discover a note saying they will meet a man the following day regarding the device inside (a huge red button). What ensues is a man (Frank Langella) with a mutilated face showing up at the door and talking to the wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and unveils that if she pushes the button she will receive one million dollars that will help support her, her husband, and their young son.
The catch is that one person somewhere in the world who she doesn't know will die. This puts into motion a big existential play (Sartre's No Exit makes a few rounds) where her and her husband Arthur (James "The-Most-Charming-Man-Ever" Marsden) are thrust into an decision that could not only affect their lives, but the fate of the planet.
I originally thought, from the marketing, that this was going to be a thriller, but after viewing it I can wholeheartedly say that it's more of a science fiction film with many nods to the hat of things coming before it. Based in the seventies, Marsden's character works for NASA and there are some crazy governmental components to this as well as parts that still don't make sense to me.
Call it what you will, but the script was one of the worst parts of the film. While The Box finally started moving after about ten or fifteen excruciating minutes, it presents some great ideas that are truly mindboggling and bizarre. After halfway through the movie, things still weren't being answered and ideas kept toppling one by one where even at the end they weren't answered and I didn't have a clue as to what this movie was really all about. The philosophical/existential approach this film took was too much to grasp and was a gift that kept on giving so much so that I'm positive it overwhelmed the target audience that were in attendance (this IS a PG-13...).
If that wasn't enough, the acting was definitely shy of great with Cameron Diaz leading the onslaught of corniness. I haven't liked anything she's been in since her reckless performance in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky (I'm a huge Tom Cruise fan, don't judge) and I thought this would be her big coup de grace where she'd please please please me, but instead she kill kill kill's me with her terrible performance. Not only was her make-up really messed up and sloppy, her accent that she sports for fifteen minutes completely vanishes by the end. James Marsden's (the X-Men films, Enchanted) tried with what he could, but seemed like he was just a man standing in a frame with a cardboard cut-out--so what do you expect. Frank Langella is a certified bad man (and I mean that in a good way) giving a creepy performance that is definitely the highlight of the movie.
I caught this at an advanced (free) screening and while it did have its moments of suspense and charm with a plot that could've been well executed given Kelly's talent, this fails in a lot of ways. The music was often inappropriate and had the audience laughing (which was a disappointment as it was conducted by some members of the band, Arcade Fire) and the corniness of the dialogue mixed with the story that tried too hard to be something it wasn't didn't help matters either. While I can say that lightning certainly doesn't strike twice for Kelly, this is definitely a step in the right direction for him to get back to how good his debut film was. Granted, it's a baby step, but one forward nonetheless.
© Jason Haskins, 2009