Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Box (2009)

Richard "Donnie Darko" Kelly's latest is one of the most audacious films I've seen this year. By his own standards, The Box has moments of utter madness that border on utter silliness. However, despite its audacity and brilliant premise, thanks to a Richard Matheson short story, it barely registers above a modicum of likability.

Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are the Lewises - he, a brilliant scientist working at NASA who fails his psychological exam and is subsequently denied astronaut training; she, a literature teacher at a private high school. So, they are not technically living on the breadline, but we are led to believe that they barely make it to the next paycheck. They also have a young teenage son, whose only purpose in the film is to ask interminable questions.

Frank Langella plays a sedated Two-Face who offers them a million dollars if they press a button on a wooden box that is delivered to their home. The catch? Someone, somewhere will die. Of course, they push the button and all hell breaks loose.

As clever as the premise is, the story never really takes off. Everything that seems to happen is finally rendered redundant without anything to bind them. Looking for causality can be proven futile in storytelling if one really digs deep in the cannon and there is no argument against an episodic structure - many a film have triumphed on that, such as Kelly's own Southland Tales. Yet, there isn't even an episodic structure in sight here.

Neither of the leads is known for their acting prowess and the trend is pretty much kept alive here. At times the acting resembles that of a B-movie, which makes it easier to tag along. However, the effect soon wears off and you are left with distracting performances that take all the juice from the story. Sad, really.

I still admire Kelly as a filmmaker for his unabashed audacity in sticking it to the conventions. Kudos to that. But more kudos and real "cult stardom" will come only when the results are as mind-blowing as Donnie Darko was. I think many people, including myself, gave a pass on Southland Tales on the merits of his previous film. But, The Box might be pushing it a little far - which probably shows him not as a formidable filmmaker, but a brave one.

This review was first published here

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