Review of "The Box"

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009; 12:50 PM

Between "Donnie Darko," "Southland Tales" and now "The Box," Newport News native Richard Kelly is becoming the cinematic poet laureate of suburban Virginia, in all its drab monotony and sneaking sense that something's going on behind those neat lawns and identical doors.

In the case of "The Box," Kelly's adaptation of a Richard Matheson story, the door in question belongs to NASA scientist Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) and his wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz), who are snug in their beds one day in 1976 when they receive at said door a mysterious brown-paper-wrapped package. Inside is a box, containing yet another box, this one with a bright red button. Later, they're visited by a man named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), whose impeccable manners and soft-spoken erudition can almost make Norma forget that half his face has been demolished. He informs her that, if she and Arthur avail themselves of "the button unit," someone in the world -- someone they don't know, he's quick to add -- will die. They will also receive "one million dollars," spoken with a basso profundo gravitas reminiscent of "Austin Powers's" Dr. Evil.

Fans of "Donnie Darko," who were even willing to give Kelly the benefit of the doubt after the ambitious mess that was "Southland Tales," will desperately want to like "The Box," which he has filmed in a gauzy haze suggesting a dream from which his characters will soon wake up (and, like a dream, the characters move as if through Karo syrup). With such an evocatively occluded atmosphere, as well as references to Mars missions, radiation accidents and big-time secrets in Langley, "The Box" has all the makings of a nifty B-movie, a classic throwback to "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," only with feathered haircuts, op-art wallpaper and frequent references to Jean-Paul Sartre.

Instead, Kelly treats what is essentially a Stanford University psychology experiment with inflated somberness and heavy-handed import. "The Box" asks the audience to accept as morally complicated the question of whether they would kill someone for a million dollars, when most sentient humans would answer "no" and move on. What's more, the stakes for Arthur and Norma are risibly low; she needs an operation for a regrettable but not life-threatening condition; he just bought a Corvette he couldn't afford. Gee, what to do . . . ? Of course, if they take this particular bailout, it will give the term "moral hazard" a whole new meaning.

Diaz and Marsden look attractively worried throughout the nesting choices, options, riddles and conundrums of "The Box," even if Diaz seems mostly to be pooching out her lips and affecting her best butter-won't-melt Southern accent. Langella is far more impressive as the Man Who Stares at Scapegoats, which for some reason here are usually women.

For a while, until extreme silliness and lapses in continuity set in, Kelly does a fine job of keeping the audience intrigued and disoriented in just the right proportion. Fans will recognize a few stylistic flourishes from "Donnie Darko," but for all the portentous close-ups and bone-rattling hints from a swollen music score, "The Box" has none of its predecessor's strange beauty and enigmatic pull. Rather than a provocative spiritual allegory, "The Box," arrives on our doorsteps as a sophomorically obvious sermon about greed and altruism. It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the difference, but in Richard Kelly's world, it does.


"The Box" (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.

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