BOX, THE(director/writer: Richard Kelly; screenwriter: based on the story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson; cinematographer: Steven Poster; editor: Sam Bauer; music: Win Butler/Régine Chassagne/Owen Pallett; cast: Cameron Diaz (Norma Lewis), James Marsden (Arthur Lewis), Frank Langella (Arlington Steward), James Rebhorn (Norm Cahill), Holmes Osborne (Dick Burns), Sam Oz Stone (Walter Lewis), Gillian Jacobs (Dana), Kevin Robertson (Wendel Matheson), Michele Durett (Rebecca Matheson); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Sean McKittrick/Richard Kelly/Dan Lin; Warner Brothers Pictures; 2009)
“This hokum might have been entertaining if Kelly could have somehow made this “Twilight Zone” material more credible.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko”/”Southland Tales”) pushes too many wrong buttons in this preposterous surreal sci-fi thriller. It’s based on the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson. This loopy tale is set in 1976–in and around NASA’s Langley Research Center and its neighboring Richmond ‘burb, where a struggling besieged attractive middle-class professional couple, Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz & James Marsden), are confronted by quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur C. Clarke, space-age conspiracies, nose-bleeding civil servant zombies and a supposedly deadly black box. This hokum might have been entertaining if Kelly could have somehow made this “Twilight Zone” material more credible and kept it from being so strained.
Arthur works at the Langley research center as an engineer (responsible for inventing the optics on the Mars Landing Program) and his club foot wife Norma is an English lit teacher in the exclusive private high school (teaches Sartre’s “No Exit” to the insensitive rich), where their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone) attends on a faculty discount. When Arthur doesn’t get his promotion to be an astronaut and Norma is told that next semester there will be no faculty discounts, the economic struggling couple finds themselves is in a money quandary. But conveniently along comes the mysterious stranger, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), whose face is torn in half as a result of being hit by lightning while serving on NASA’s Mars Project and who drops off a mysterious black box at the doorstep of the couple’s home early in the morning and then returns later to offer them a million dollars if they push a red button that will randomly kill a complete stranger. After some wrestling with her conscience, Norma pushes the button and gets the dough. She then has successful surgery on her foot and joyfully attends the wedding rehearsal for sister’s wedding, but the good news is outweighed by the bad news–she made a bad moral decision and now her life and those of her family are threatened by madman Arlington.
The sinister film, meant to be taken seriously, veers off from its paranormal story to a murky existential subplot and other overstuffed mysteries that go nowhere. Things become increasingly risible and uninvolving the more we get to learning about the further ridiculous plot machinations. And to boot, Langella’s Steward feels like an artificial construct with his dignified presence, rich booming voice and references to Sartre about matters of free choice. In fact, he seems like an erudite figure from the literary world who is slumming in such a vapid film. By the conclusion I had to check to see if I didn’t have a nose bleed, as the film seems lost in the stratosphere as it tried to scale unrealistic heights over so much diabolical nonsense.
REVIEWED ON 11/16/2009 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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