Barely containing herself, Kimberly Gadette parcels out the following question: This being his third film, how does Richard Kelly's The Box shape up?
It's a nice thing, a filmmaker who appreciates his parents. The fact that we're also forced to appreciate his parents, in a film that is a convoluted mess because of the inclusion of those parents, isn't as nice. Not even close.
Writer/director Richard Kelly takes a smart, compact piece of science fiction writing (Richard Matheson's ‘Button, Button', a morality tale published in the June 1970 issue of Playboy) and turns it into a red-herring fest rife with bloody noses, physical deformities, Jean-Paul Sartre, bad plumbing, the 1976 Mars Viking project, suspicious baby sitters, motel pools as transport hubs, zombie husbands who frequent libraries, and maybe an alien life form. Maybe. Add to that Kelly's own hometown of Richmond, Virginia, his father's career with NASA (echoed in James Marsden's Arthur), his mother's physical deformity (addressed in Cameron Diaz' Norma) and voila! What we get is a cardboard box stuffed with a whole lot of nothing but nonsense and ego. Begging the question: can we send it back without having to pay return shipping?
We can only hope that the highly prolific, 83-year-old Matheson (I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Stir of Echoes, Somewhere in Time), is too busy to take in a matinee. Considering his displeasure with the 1985 Twilight Zone television version (he requested his name be removed from the credits after finding that his story conclusion had been rewritten), Kelly may be in for some octogenarian ire.
Disconnected story lines working in, out and all around The Box, the film starts with a simple proposition as set forth by a well-dressed, mysterious stranger (Frank Langella's Arlington) to Norma, a prep school teacher and Arthur, her engineer hubby. Push the red button resting atop the wooden box and get paid one million dollars. Tax free. Oh, and someone they don't know will die. They have 24 hours to decide.
Of course, the couple needs the money. Their child's schooling has just become exorbitant, and Arthur didn't get the promotion at NASA that he'd been expecting. Science-minded Arthur examines the box from the bottom up and finds nothing. But Norma struggles with the decision. What will they do?
There's an interesting subtext going on with this particular "box." More than just rude slang for a woman's genitalia, the title points to the fact that in this story, it's the ladies who are complicit while their poor men are guilty only by association. In this film, the total score is Women = 3, Men = 0. How very Book of Genesis of Mr. Kelly.
Perhaps these sinful ladies are being punished for their housekeeping skills – and yet, no amount of slovenly behavior could rival this messy plot:
- The couple leaves their home to see a play, but quickly return. Since Norma had already discussed Sartre's No Exit in her class, this roundtrip to the theatre does nothing to advance the story.
- A nasty student in Norma's class shows up later at a wedding, and Norma doesn't register his obvious presence.
- While Arthur was working on the Mars Viking project, a photograph was taken of the entire group of NASA co-workers. That photo is pinned up on his basement wall. Yet when he first meets Langella's Arlington, he doesn't recognize him – even though Steward was another NASA employee and is in that very picture. More than just a faceless co-worker, Steward suffered a tragic accident that destroyed the lower left side of his face. Aha. Perhaps he's faceless after all.
The three leads all seem highly committed to the material. Langella plays the spooky, courtly stranger with great aplomb, Marsden is the loving, bewildered husband and Diaz has perfected an ongoing look of horror. Whether or not it's a reaction to the idiotic script, we'll never know.
Kelly managed to sort out the jumble that is his first film (Donnie Darko) with frequent time jumps, ultimately being able to ascribe it all to either a schizophrenic hallucination or sci-fi time travel. His second (Southland Tales) was so poorly executed, considered such an indulgent muddle, that people often get a sour look on their face when they so much as hear the title. And now we have The Box to complete the triad. How tidy. A perfect box set, just in time for Christmas. Or not.
Rating on a scale of 5 brown paper packages tied up with strings: 1.5
Release date: US: 6 November 2009; UK: 4 December 2009
Directed by: Richard Kelly
Screenplay by: Richard Kelly
Based on the short story ‘Button, Button’ by: Richard Matheson
Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs, Basil Hoffman
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = 12A
Running time: 115 minutes