Cameron Diaz and James Marsden have a terrible moral dilemma in Richard Kelly’s “The Box”: Press a button on a mysterious container, they’ll get $1 million, and someone they don’t know will die.
What button, on whose box, did Kelly push to get the money to make this awful, preposterous thriller?
If Hollywood were a three-strikes, you’re-out kind of place, Kelly would be flirting with permanent banishment. His first film, cult hit “Donnie Darko,” was an intriguing foul ball, muddled and pretentious but showing signs of a strong talent in search of his voice.
His second, “Southland Tales,” was a disaster, an unintelligible heap of bombast that was distressing to watch, the way it just refused to end. Life’s too short, you know?
While not as long and overblown as “Southland Tales,” this third try is just as bad in its way. And how it treats Frank Langella, who finally got some cinematic respect with his Academy Award nomination for last year’s “Frost/Nixon,” is shameful.
“The Box” is like a magician’s prop: It gives the illusion that it’s full of stuff — ideas, portents, clues, meaning — when actually, it’s as empty as the heroines’ heads in Diaz’s “Charlie’s Angels” flicks.
Writer-director Kelly adapted this mess from Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button,” previously the basis for an episode of the 1980s TV revival of “The Twilight Zone.”
With its O. Henry-style gotcha ending, Matheson’s story is perfect for “The Twilight Zone.” But when Kelly reaches that surprise climax from the short story, he’s sadly just getting started.
Diaz and Marsden play Norma and Arthur Lewis, a Virginia couple living a decent life with their young son in 1976. Arthur is a NASA engineer who worked on the Mars Viking landing, while Norma is a private-school teacher with a bad Southern accent that comes and goes and a gimpy foot resulting from medical negligence.
Just as some financial setbacks hit the family, ominous stranger Arlington Steward (Langella, stuck with a horrible facial disfigurement from a lightning strike), turns up with the box, the button and the deal.
The movie then wallows through superficial soul-searching and sermonizing as the Lewises make their choice, graduating from a “Twilight Zone” episode to an installment of “The X-Files” in its post-Mulder death throes, when the show turned to rot.
Kelly piles on government conspiracies, covert abductions, an epidemic of nosebleeds, mobs of automatons controlled by forces beyond human comprehension, quotes from Arthur C. Clarke and Jean-Paul Sartre. And worse still: awful 1970s plaid pants.
The director and his cast treat all this ridiculousness with such gravity (Diaz bears an unbecoming scowl through almost the entire movie) that the dam thankfully bursts and the hammy dialogue and hammier performances provoke laughs as “The Box” shambles toward its overdue demise.
Kelly loosely based Norma and Arthur on his own parents — his dad worked for NASA in Virginia and his mom had a similar foot injury caused by medical malpractice. No doubt they’re cool with it, but for the rest of us, “The Box” is best left unopened.