Richard Kelly's The Box opens with an alarm clock turning over, reminding you to set yours for about an hour and forty minutes. It is boring, bad, stupid, a total ripoff and waste of time. That said with one caveat and saving grace: Frank Langella, as watchable here as in last year's Frost/Nixon. In that film, he had competition for watchability. Here, he's all there is.
There's not one thing that's believable about the film, not the set-up, not the payoff, not what happens in between, not the performances, not the characters or their stupid actions, not the set design--you get the idea. When they watched the old sitcom "Alice," I didn't believe they were watching "Alice." Ah, but it's an allegory, so that's okay. Or would be, if it were an interesting allegory.
The film is set in 1976, and you probably know the set-up from the trailer. A young couple, Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), facing some possible financial setbacks, despite Arthur's driving a sleek Corvette, and their living in a lovely home in Virginia, near the NASA facility at Langley where Arthur works as an engineer, are presented with a package containing a button. Mr. Steward (Frank Langella), a mysterious man with half of his face burned off, informs them that pushing the button will kill someone in the world whom they don't know, and earn them one million dollars.
Seeing the trailer, my first thought was: Push the button. The odd death threat is probably a bluff, people get killed every day. My second thought was: If they'll pay a million to try to avoid or complicate responsibility for any kind of murder, real or imaginary, don't mess with them at all. It's hard to tell which position the film actually ends up taking, except that it knocks you over the head with the obvious answer, which is don't do it. On the other hand, it's 2009, and the film is set in 1976, so if certain conceits of the film are to be followed through to their logical conclusions, most people handle this sort of dilemma right anyway, so if the point is not exactly moot, one should consider it not very important or revelatory of human nature.
But this film is the story of Norma and Arthur, and what they, and some others presented with the same choice, do. Hint: They are stupid.
In case you cannot figure out the allegorical message of the film from the heavy-handed early clues, the dialogue is crafted to (a) be totally unbelievable and (b) discuss every possible aspect of the allegory like in a freshman Lit class, with no hope of your getting an A for participating.
There are a few welcome weird moments which seem to hint at a worthwhile story, something entertaining. As mentioned, Frank Langella is excellent, as is the effect used to create his facial deformity. Cameron Diaz's perfect beauty is slightly marred by another surprising flaw, presented disturbingly. The pushing of the button itself (I won't say who pushes it or when) is well done, sends little shivers up the spine. They don't really add up to anything much, however.
I must also mention Diaz's atrocious attempt at a Southern accent. It is truly atrocious, not resembling any actual Southern accent I have ever heard, even in the most eccentric corners of Virginia, which does feature a panoply of different Southern accents. (Once in southwest Virginia, I ordered a bag of ice to be collected outside the store, and was asked, "Ace?" "Ice." "Ace?" "A bag of ice, like frozen water." "Oh, ayce!" I have also been asked over to see someone's new "hise" in the same general area, but I digress.) Her character teaches Sartre to high school students, so she probably could have just dropped any attempted accent with no detrimental effect. Walter Lewis, the couple's son, played by the quite good Sam Oz Stone, has a mostly excellent and credible accent, however.
When it comes right down to it, save your money, really. You are not missing a good surprise, take my word for it, I implore you. There is not a good surprise. The Box is just about a total cinematic dog. The half a star is for Langella.
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