Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Prestige

Dreary costume piece proves even a good director can make a bad movie

Christian Bale
I never have understood, nor am I ever likely to understand, the cryptid appeal of Christian Bale, who in every film appears to be playing some sort of menacing halfwit. He's the sort of actor who, a generation earlier, would have been typecast playing murderous hillbillies and club-footed henchmen. 

In Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (2006), the spooky-eyed stick of wood squares off with Hugh Jackman in a dour, meandering tale about a pair of rival 19th century magicians. The film is based on a 1995 novel by Christopher Priest. 

Bale plays Alfred Borden, a low-rent music hall magician whose chief rival is the classier, tuxedo-clad Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, whose own curiously rigid deportment suggests that he has mislaid his walking stick up his bottom. 

The film opens with a monologue in which Michael Caine describes the "three parts" of every great magic trick, which are allegedly called the "pledge," the "turn," and the "prestige." It's all a load of pretentious, faux-Edwardian rubbish, of course, invented by Priest for his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-esque novel. No authentic magician, from Houdini to David Blaine, has ever used those terms to describe any part of their act, so straight away we're already in bogus territory. Which might be forgiven if the rest of the movie were not so relentlessly dunderheaded. 

One would expect a film about dueling illusionists to crackle with mystery, suspense, and bravura theatrics, all of which are noticeably absent from Nolan's thudding, glacially-paced film. The only thing crackling here is the improbable giant Tesla coil that Nolan hauls out from time to time to make sure the audience hasn't been put to sleep by David Julyan's tinkling musical score. 

The somnabulistic David Bowie trying not to appear confused in the role of scientist Nikola Tesla

An almost unrecognizable David Bowie (Just a Gigolo, The Man Who Fell to Earth) makes a heroic effort not to appear confused in yet another of his obfuscatory, out-of-body performances--this time as Nikola Tesla, the brilliant but eccentric scientist who invented alternating current, and whose real-life rivalry with Thomas Edison would have made for a far more interesting film than Priest's novel. 

That the movie is without an atom of humor suggests that it wants to be taken very seriously, yet Nolan stages the deaths, love affairs, and stage accidents in such an offhanded way that they never resonate on any dramatic or emotional level. Moviegoers shell out their hard-earned cash because they're willing to invest a little something emotionally in the characters, however that requires some cooperation on the part of the director, and in this case it's as if Nolan couldn't be bothered. Which might be forgivable if, as in the case of Jurassic Park, the director were less intent upon character development than wowing us with wonder, yet here again the movie disappoints: aside from that giant CG tesla coil--a major cheat--Borden and Angier's illusions are so clumsily staged, the only marvel is that their audiences are fooled at all.

Stuff and Nonsense: Bowie and Jackman
Only slightly less clueless than their patrons, Borden and Angier spend most of their time trying to figure out how each other's tricks are done. As they are apparently incapable of devising original illusions themselves, their magic tricks are bought, stolen or manufactured by engineers (re: Michael Caine, playing a sort of "Q" to Jackman's Angier).

Strangely, Nolan occasionally sees fit to inject the miraculous. It is never explained, for example, how the primitive technologies of 19th century stagecraft could allow for Angier to abruptly transport himself from the stage to the back of the theater within the space of a second (this, before he gets the brilliant idea of hiring a stage double); or how Borden could show a woman to her door, only to be found miraculously emerging from the kitchen once she steps inside. (If he's capable of moving through walls, why doesn't he just teleport himself out of prison near the end of the film?)

The usually luminous Scarlett Johansson appears in what ought to have been a showy role as Bale's wife and stage assistant, yet Nolan works the misogynistic treason of giving her nothing to do while rendering her utterly drab and forgettable, which in a perfect world would be an actionable offense.  

The film abandons its moorings altogether during a scene in which it is implied that Jackman has been using the tesla coil to clone multiple copies of himself, the very idea of which is so breathtakingly idiotic that Nolan doesn't even try to explain it. For those who may have forgotten their science lessons, a tesla coil is nothing more than a big spark plug. If Nolan's premise is to be believed, every time we started our cars we would create tiny clones of everything within proximity of the spark gap. (Then again, perhaps that explains the baffling proliferation of grease and grime in the engine compartment.)

Audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief to a point, however a little of this sort of nonsense goes a long way, and there's far too much of it in The Prestige. The improbabilities eventually become as irksome as the characters, and by the time the film lumbers to its absurd climax with it's painfully obvious "twist" (yawn), the viewer has long since ceased to care who is the better magician or what happens to this sorry lot.

No comments: