ZERO STARS/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C
starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn
screenplay by Richard Kelly, based on the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson
directed by Richard Kelly
by Walter Chaw As if to dispel any whisper of a doubt after Richard Kelly's Southland Tales that whatever ephemeral magic was captured in his Donnie Darko was completely accidental, along comes Kelly's third film as writer-director, The Box. I don't know yet whether it's the worst film of the year, but I will say that next to it Alex Proyas' similar disaster Knowing seems like a goddamn masterpiece. It's excruciatingly written, for starters, with the all-timer coming when vanilla paterfamilias Arthur (James Marsden), fresh from a 2001 light tunnel, says to vanilla materfamilias Norma (Cameron Diaz) first that "it's beyond words," then, a few dozen words later, that it's "neither here, nor there...but somewhere in between" and that it's a place "where despair is not the governor of the human soul." It was around this time that I bore down like a Civil War soldier getting a limb sawed off and watched as The Box magically made its 115-minute running time feel like a day spent undergoing oral surgery. It's that bad. Badly edited, too, as the awful script (based on a pretty good Richard Matheson short story)--which already jumps around haphazardly between cheap, moronic comparisons of itself to Sartre's No Exit and egregious exposition that makes M. Night Shyamalan's leisurely verbal masturbations look like Mamet by comparison--is matched by bizarre jump-cuts and senseless, arrhythmic pacing. Despite how long it feels, it's over before it really begins.
Arthur and Norma exist in Virginia circa 1976--a fact we're constantly reminded of through loud wardrobe and décor plus endless pop-cultural references on various boob tubes. (Did you know that "What's Happening!!" debuted in 1976? You will!) Left on their doorstep one morning is the titular box, which comes with a red plunger and the promise from mysterious freak Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) that should Arthur and Norma take the plunge, so to speak, it will net them a cool million. Here's the catch: Pushing the button means that someone they don't know somewhere in the world will die. Yes, it's a movie based on Gregory Stock's invasive, seriously fucked-up, psycho-pop bestseller The Book of Questions, and the only way it could have been remotely interesting is if these upper-middleclass douchebags resisted the urge to do that which everyone knows they won't resist doing. Somehow it's all tied into a vague Invasion of the Body Snatchers intrigue involving Arthur's NASA job, while a semi-effective sequence in a library brings home the idea of Work in a picture released during a pretty brutal economic recession. A shame that not a one of the ideas in this thing--not the babysitter (Gillian Jacobs, she of the perfect nose) who turns out to be not what she seems even though she spent an entire evening playing Monopoly with spawn-in-peril Walter (Sam Oz Stone); not a baffling subplot involving father-in-law Dick (Kelly mainstay Holmes Osbourne)--ever bears anything resembling fruit.
What The Box resembles most, in fact, is a distended episode of "The Simpsons"' annual Halloween special; you expect at any moment that Kang and Kodos will break in to offer commentary (and indeed, Langella's Steward (!) isn't an inappropriate substitute). The only way to enjoy the film is to hate on it, to pretend that it's some sort of satire of the kind of apocalyptic sci-fi we've endured too much of recently, from Scott Derrickson's hilarious shipwreck remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still to The Happening and Knowing. The worst is that at the end of such legendary ineptitude, all-star assclown Kelly injects an entire baster's worth of moral chest-thumping pontificating that what the world needs now is love, sweet love. Not convinced? Cameron Diaz plays an English teacher (!) with a toeless foot and a cornpone southern accent--and she delivers a pages-long monologue about feeling intense love for a man with a facial deformity before getting Vulcan nerve-pinched into insensibility. It's true, Kelly is America's very own Guy Ritchie. Bring a stick to bite down on and a bottle of sour mash.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Oh my God Richard Kelly shut up. That's how I felt listening to the writer-director's commentary track for The Box, during which he compulsively overrationalizes everything and anything in the picture that could be construed as narratively or artstically enigmatic, e.g., the entire library sequence. If there were ever any doubt that, contrary to his insistent weirdness, he's the anti-David Lynch, well, there's your proof. Insecure, needy, defensive proof. It reinforces a callowness that comes through when he describes a busybody reporter (played by Kelly stock-company member Lisa K. Wyatt) as "Hitchcockian" but fails to provide a definitive example to support the archetype. (Speaking of lacking definitiveness, here's Kelly on the movie's pivotal first meeting between Cameron Diaz's Norma and Frank Langella's Steward: "This ultimately becomes probably one of the signature scenes in the film.") I had high hopes for Kelly circa Donnie Darko--but then, like Lina Lamont before him, he spoke. And produced I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. This yakker, by the way, is exclusive to Blu-ray along with a smattering of video-based extras.
"The Box: Grounded in Reality" (11 mins., HD) expands on the commentary's notion that the film is semi-autobiographical by interviewing Kelly's parents, Lane and Ellis, whose backstory--mangled foot and all--Kelly co-opted for the characters of Norma and Arthur, respectively. Sometime, then, the three of them should maybe see a therapist about the film's ending. "Visual Effects Revealed" montages (4 mins. in toto, HD) find visual effects editor Dylan Highsmith succinctly explaining in voiceover how they executed shots featuring Arlington's burned face (an impressive digital makeup), the so-called "water coffins" (just remake The Abyss already, Kelly), and period Richmond. It wouldn't be a Richard Kelly joint without some kind of offscreen prologue waiting in the wings, of course, and on this disc we get three "Music Video Prequels" (9 mins., HD) that mainly act as a repository for the archival footage, real and simulated, glimpsed throughout The Box, as well as an overture opportunity for the film's score. (Unfortunately, these clips weren't mastered in 5.1, let alone a lossless format.) The only supplement common to both the BD and DVD, "Richard Matheson: In His Own Words" (5 mins., HD) catches the cantankerous author in a good mood but notably sidesteps The Box altogether, save mention of its source material and a few contextualizing soundbites from Kelly.
The Box proper looks pretty good in 2.40:1, 1080p widescreen. Suffering a serious case of Zodiac envy, Kelly and DP Steven Poster shot the film mostly with the HiDef Genesis camera but seem a little reluctant to surrender to the glassiness that made Zodiac such a unique and vital window into the past. At least, that's how I interpret the faint presence of grain, which could simply be video noise but suggests an affectation for how it feels, in conjunction with the faux-Seventies technique (muted, mustard-stained colours, lots of light bleed), all of a piece. The image, in any case, is finely detailed, while the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is crisp, bold, and directional from the very start, as a stage-setting telex communication moves from left to right in the speakers accordingly. A spot touting Digital Copy technology plus the trailer for Sherlock Holmes cue up on startup; a Digital Copy of The Box itself closes out the package. Originally published: February 15, 2010.