Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Box

Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko was a fun, mysterious, hypnotically creepy film that continues to be rediscovered by new audiences, all of whom seem to have conferred upon it the cherished appellation of "cult classic." The film also has an interesting and very strange website.)

They say that some directors have one good film in them. I hope that isn't the case with Richard Kelly, however after his 2009 film The Box, he's got some explaining to do. 

The film is an elaborately puffed-up reworking of a Richard Matheson short story entitled Button, Button, which was previously adapted for an episode of the 1985 Twilight Zone television series. Matheson reportedly hated the Twilight Zone episode because they took liberties with the story.  If that's true, I hope Matheson never got a look at Kelly's version. Hoo-boy! This is one undeliverable parcel.

Set in 1976 for no apparent reason other than to keep the set dressers busy hunting up hideous wallpaper, and shot with the same smeary soft-focus effect previously used to hide the wrinkles of aging movie stars, The Box stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as Norma and Arthur Lewis, a young couple who are supposedly struggling financially even though they live in a modest home and both have successful professional careers--she as a high school teacher and he as an optical specialist at NASA's Langley, Virginia, Research Center. They have one child, a boy named Walter (Sam Oz Stone).

Though it has no bearing whatsoever on the plot, much attention is lavished on the fact that Norma suffers from a permanent limp, the result of a bizarre medical accident. Early on in the film, Norma is humiliated by one of her students--a spectacularly obnoxious kid who tries very hard to look evil, but simply made me wish that I could somehow go through the movie screen and get my hands on him--who goads Norma into removing her shoe so that the entire class may see her disfigured foot. Diaz stands there, withering, naked with humiliation, as the students marvel disgustedly at the deformed appendage. After a minor eternity, Diaz is mercifully saved by--wait for it--the bell. (Amazing, how perfectly timed those things are.) 

The scene is off-putting not on account of Norma's deformity, but because it illustrates Kelly's occasional staggering obliviousness to--or cynical contempt for, I'm not sure which--the fundamental realities of authentic human behavior. No real teacher, in the real world, would ever, in a million years, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, behave the way Diaz does. I've known a few teachers in my life--my parents, to name but two--and the grotesquely reverential way that Diaz meekly acquiesces to her own humiliation in front of a classroom full of students is an insult to teachers, and indicates how out of touch with reality a certain fading former Hollywood A-lister has become in the waning days of her viability as a bankable property. I almost left the theater after that scene, however as it occurred within the first ten minutes of the movie I wouldn't have had much to write about, aside from which I thankfully hadn't had to pay for the ticket. So I decided to stay. Not that I'm happy about it. 

Marsden and Diaz
One day, the Lewises find a parcel on their doorstep containing a black box with a big red button. There is a note from a "Mr. Steward" indicating that he will return at 5:00 PM to explain about the box. 

The mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) shows up at the appointed time, nattily attired in an elegant Savile Row suit. He is polite but businesslike, however his most noticeable feature is his face, half of which appears to have been blown off and improperly attended to. Langella is the only thing worth watching in the movie, however he is unfortunately upstaged by his own makeup, which resembles that of Harvey "Two Face" Dent (Aaron Eckhart) from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. (That the great Frank Langella was hornswoggled into appearing in this movie is likelier a testament to Kelly's skills of persuasion than it is an indictment of Langella's judgment, Cutthroat Island notwithstanding.)

Steward explains that he will return in 24 hours to collect the button from the Lewises. If, during that time, they decide to unlock and push the button, he will give them $1 million cash. The only catch--and it's a big one--is that somewhere a stranger will die. It might be across town, it might be on another continent, however Steward assures them that the victim will be someone unknown to them. As a show of good faith, he leaves them with a crisp $100 bill, theirs to keep whether they push the button or not.

Langella and Diaz
Arthur and Norma are skeptical, believing the whole thing to be a scam or an elaborate hoax, however it isn't long before they begin to wonder what would happen if they did push the button. Would they really get a million dollars? Would somebody really die? Weary of the speculation, Norma slaps the button. Nothing happens. However, their initial relief gives way to alarm when Steward shows up the next day with a briefcase full of cash. They decide to call the whole thing off, however Steward tells them it's too late. 

"You've already pushed the button," he grimly explains. 

As Steward's limo pulls away, Arthur notes the license number, which he later discovers is registered to the NSA (National Security Agency).

At this point the film begins to veer deeply into cuckootown as secondary characters start springing nosebleeds and flashing peace signs for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, the town is invaded by a bunch of pudgy, slack-jawed geeks with bad shirts and pocket protectors who start following Arthur around like an advance scouting party for a race of zombie alien nerds. 

The menacing bookworms eventually trap Arthur in the town library, where Steward's spinsterish wife--whom we haven't seen till now--informs Arthur that the only way to escape the evil eggheads is to step into one of three vertical columns of cheesy-looking digital water effects. 

"What happens if I choose the wrong one?", Arthur asks, seeming far less baffled than he should be under circumstances, and certainly far less baffled than the audience is by this time. 

"Eternal damnation," the spinster says ominously.

Arthur steps into the center column of watery special effects, and after a brief absence he suddenly reappears, still in his water cocoon, hovering over Norma's bed. When she wakes up and sees him, the water bubble bursts and Arthur tumbles onto the bed in a shower of water which, oddly enough, continues to drip from the overhead water pipes just out of camera range while a sodden Marsden and Diaz flop around on the bed.

It's confusing, I know.

We eventually learn, through snatches of nonsensically cryptic dialogue, that Steward was once the public relations officer for the NSA until he was struck by a lightning bolt that destroyed part of his face. He was pronounced dead but later returned to life, having been transformed into a sort of superman who now serves "the ones who make the lightning," and whose powers have enabled him to take over the CIA, the NSA, and NASA all by himself.

And what's the point of all this wittering twaddle?  Apparently, Steward's mission is to subject humans to a kind of draconian character test (e.g., the "Binding of Isaac"), to determine whether the race is worth saving. If enough people pass the test by refusing to push the button, Steward's god-like overlords will spare humanity. Unfortunately, those who do push the button, such as Norma and Arthur, must be punished for their moral spinelessness, to which end they are subjected to a seemingly endless series of dreary Lady or the Tiger ordeals that play out like one of those Saw movies, except without the entertaining gore or a coherent plot.

The Box

The Box represents the sort of pointless mental masturbation that freshman philosophy students like to blather on about after a few beers, however Kelly's tedious exercise in existentialist pettifoggery eventually collapses under the weight of its own insupportability. The tortured melange of ideas eventually congeals, as with the mixing together of too many colors, into a meandering gray goo of a film as insipid as one of those narcotizing in-flight movies, the plot of which suffers no more or less from having been interrupted by a leisurely nap.

There is a moment in the film when Arthur, who is a technically-minded guy, becomes curious about how the button works. Opening up the unit, he is disappointed to find nothing inside.

Having seen The Box, I know exactly how he feels. 

Rent Donnie Darko instead.

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