Return "The Box" to sender

Wed Nov 4, 2009 7:36pm EST

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Maybe the movie should be called "The Chinese Box."

OK, there is really only one box, but as a convoluted yet unconvincing story evolves, metaphorical boxes get pulled out of boxes as the plot winds its way through suspense, psychological thriller, science fiction, conspiracy theory and horror genres with an overlay of Christian religious motifs and a dab of existentialism. Oh, there's also a lot of nose bleeding.

The writer-director is Richard Kelly, whose 2001 sci-fi mystery "Donnie Darko" achieved cult status. It seems he's going that way again, only this time with a name cast and studio budget. Which means a minority of those who see the film might want to puzzle over the significance of the box or the peace signs or the mission to Mars or, yes, those nose bleeds while a large majority couldn't care less even if they don't demand their money back after a half-hour.

Box office returns should be dismal upon the movie's Friday release via Warner Bros.

The movie begins like an episode of "The Twilight Zone"; sure enough, the Richard Matheson short story on which the movie is based was made into an episode of that show in 1986. But for Kelly, the moral dilemma posed by the story is only a jumping-off spot.

In 1976, someone rings a doorbell on a suburban Virginia house at 5:45 a.m. and leaves a package on the doorstep before roaring away in a dark car. So what do the residents, Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis, do? Call the police? The bomb squad? No, they take the damn package inside and open it on the kitchen table in front of their only son.

She's a teacher and he's a rocket scientist, and they're this stupid? Nevermind, they open it and nothing goes kaboom, but they pull out a mysterious box they cannot open.

Later in the day, a shadowy, ominous man (Frank Langella, who does ominous very well) with half his face burned away from a lightning strike drops by and explains the box's purpose. He produces a key and opens it to display a button. He then offers the couple two options: They press the button and he gives them a million bucks tax-free -- don't you love that "tax-free" inducement? The only catch is that someone they don't know will die. Option 2 is they give him back the box and he'll leave $100 for their troubles.

Do they call the police now? They do not. Rather, they struggle with the moral dilemma. Matheson at least made sure his couple were struggling financially. Kelly's couple are living the good life. Their only financial concern is that their son's school just raised his tuition fees. No, really, a life-or-death decision must be made over tuition fees!

From here, the movie gets really silly. The license on the limo ferrying Mr. Half Face around is traced to NASA, a colleague of Arthur's at NASA then kills his wife, spies are everywhere, children get kidnapped, zombie civil servants chase the couple and the movie more than suggests that aliens and Arthur's work on a Mars mission are behind that damned button.

Then there are those bleeding noses, and Norma -- who, one remembers, is rather careless about her family's safety -- hires a baby-sitter she never bothers to check out. Kelly's writing is all over the place and nowhere at the same time. Story strands unravel without any credibility and coherence. But his direction might be worse.

The old "Twilight Zones" created unsettling situations in an almost hallucinatory landscape where the odd and the disturbing went hand in glove. Kelly sets his nonsense in a world that's much too real. The nightmare logic feels fake and the characters all behave as if their supplier has gone on holiday.

The slickness of the production works against the grain of such shaggy-dog speculative fiction. Kelly is at heart a cinematic anarchist who doesn't care whether an audience follows his various subplots. This all made sense with a first project like "Donnie Darko" with its overweening ambition and feverish imagination. For a third movie, you wish discipline and artistic control would emerge. Maybe that's still in the box.

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