Tuesday, August 14, 2007
DJ Caruso is a Hack Part II
Well, it’s been a few weeks now and I’m no less resigned to the fact that New Line is on track to make a god awful adaptation of Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man. There hasn’t been any casting rumors or script pages leaked to the net. There wasn’t one of those nifty press conferences like the ones at Comic-Con where all the actors get up on stage and talk about how excited they are to be working on the project (because deep down they really consider themselves “nerds”). I’m to assume the project is just quietly progressing behind the scenes and will just as quietly be moved into production with sickening, factory-like efficiency. This is just how things are done.
The last time I addressed this issue, the brunt of my annoyance was leveled at the man hired to direct the film, D.J. Caruso of Salton Sea and Disturbia fame. At the time, I hadn’t seen Disturbia, easily the biggest financial success of his relatively young career, and my comments directed towards the particular film spoke to the public’s response to the film and not my own. The film has since been released on DVD and I made Netflixing the film a top priority of mine (those who know me can attest, I tend to keep my rentals for months at a time so in the event something does come out that I want to see immediately I have to quickly shuffle everything around… Some day I’ll watch Ten Items or Less but that day isn’t going to be anytime soon). This, after all, is the film which got Caruso (and writer Carl Ellsworth) the Y:TLM job, so there must be something to it.
My misgivings about Caruso aside, I had modest hopes for the film which was marketed as a Rear Window knock-off for the Myspace demo. Reviews were kind if not quite glowing and the film was something of an anomaly these days in that it was a legitimate word of mouth hit. Its star, Shia LaBeouf, has earned comparisons to both Hanks and Hoffman (that would be Dustin, not Philip Seymour) both for his low to the ground affability and his unconventional leading man status. He’s non-threatening to women and a believable surrogate for most guys. I wanted to like the film because the premise is pretty much foolproof and after a summer of “toy movies” (which is to say films both inspired by and driven to sell toys), a stripped down, character-driven thriller struck me as an awesome idea in mid August.
But guess what: the film is shit. And worst of all its shit in all the ways that had me worried for the Y:TLM adaptation. Caruso is essentially Brett Ratner with a smaller train set at his disposal. The film is middling and pedestrian and slick-looking without any real sense of style or voice. I feel like the film should be playing in elevators at corporate buildings. This may be the first serial killer film in history that exists as cinematic wallpaper, comfortably conforming and never distracting from the good time the actors are having.
It’s also, to my shock, a toy film as much as the LaBeouf starring Transformers is. That film was of course based on a toy (and, because of Michael Bay’s sensibilities behind the camera, was lit and cut to emphasize all the GM automobiles on display) but this is ultimately something far more insidious; a 90-minute Best Buy circular pitched at teenagers, chock full of goodies just within the grasp of their disposable income, borrowing mom and dad’s credit card, lives. Xbox 360, iPods and iTunes are given repeated shout-outs and the film’s techno chic surveillance gadgets are placed squarely in the “next year’s model” vein. A sequence involving Sarah Roemer’s idealized girl next door character (who is so movie perfect she not only doesn’t mind palling around in Shia’s musky, shithole of a bedroom but is actually turned on by all the astute observations he’s made whilst peeping on her while she’s changing across the way) surveying David Morse’s would-be serial killer in a hardware store seems to be more about the crisp clarity of her camera phone then heightening tension.
Disturbia also finds itself in something of a predicament as short of placing Shia in a leg cast (and no doubt having to pay royalties to the Hitchcock estate) it struggles to find a reason to keep the character confined and the story claustrophobic in nature. Its solution: make apple-cheeked LaBeouf who behaves throughout much of the film as though he’s spent a good deal of time on the receiving end of his share of atomic wedgies and swirlies, a repeat-offender juvenile delinquent placed under house arrest.
Not a bad solution admittedly and one that’s gotten a lot of play in the media lately (Martha Stewart is both name checked as well as incorporated into a typically lousy extended riff) but the casting of Shia works against the plot point. It’s frankly never believable that he’d run afoul of the law enough to warrant such a specialized punishment. The film’s answer to this dilemma is to construct an embarrassingly mawkish back-story explaining the character’s “fall from grace” after he’s involved in a fatal car accident where his father is killed after (I shit you not) a sun-dimpled fly-fishing trip. Like, as in A River Runs Through It. Soon he’s a bundle of nerves who punches out his Spanish teacher in class for invoking his father’s memory and he’s standing in front of a judge for that and “all his previous offenses” which have conveniently been placed way off screen.
The dead-dad internal engine is more or less abandoned once it’s served its purpose but more distressing than how hackneyed it is, is how the film uses it as a cop-out: Shia’s Kale isn’t a bad kid, just a messed up one lashing out at the world. The character is no different than anyone of the millions of over-privileged, latchkey kids spending this summer surfing the net for porn and playing Gears of War, the only difference is now this one can’t go out on Friday nights to annoy me while I’m at the movies.
Disturbia ultimately isn’t smart enough to point the finger at the very people it’s pandering towards. The film stumbles blindly into the irony of our information-now, webcam, streaming audio, techno-junkie culture being a more discreet version of looking in your neighbors’ window with binoculars without ever making a concrete point. It’s as though it were merely dumping a serial killer next door thriller into a YouTube milieu.
And what an awful serial killer film it is. First of all, the plot proper doesn’t kick in for nearly forty-minutes which would be admirable if Shia’s character actually had a personality. Once the film has established the physical parameters of the character’s invisible prison it becomes one long “I’m bored” montage. The character is such a used Kleenex of lazy teenage tropes that we’re supposed to interpret mom cutting off his iTunes account as an unconscionable violation of his identity (dude, it’s the internet… it exists so you can download stuff for free. Be resourceful already). What is poor Shia to do all summer, with nothing but his cable TV, high speed internet, Microsoft gaming system, token non-white friend and cute jailbait next door to occupy his wandering attention?
At this point Kale’s attention is drawn to Morse’s Mr. Turner, living across the street, whom he suspects may be a serial killer because, um, he drives a black car with a dented bumper. No seriously. Oh sure, over time he begins to compile a mountain of incriminating yet allusively coincidental evidence but the film never sells what it is about Turner that’s so darn suspicious. Again, it’s here the films laziness works against its own best interests. In Rear Window Jimmy Stewart’s infirm photographer obsessively gazes at his neighbors because there is no Direct TV or videogames to distract him. Left to nothing but his own devices, small abnormalities and subtle changes in people’s behavior inform his personal soap opera. He has nothing but room for paranoid theories and leaps in logical deduction often against the better judgment of those around him.
Yet Kale lives in such a cluttered, overly fussy world of mind-numbing electronic distractions his seeming obsession with the world outside his window is rendered all the more facile. Who needs the straying husband and the cleaning lady across the way when you’ve got “Cheaters” with host Joey Greco on the television?
Because Morse has spent the better part of twenty years playing smoky-voiced, passive-aggressive heavies (even when he’s not really playing the villain) we expect a certain amount of nuance and misdirection from the performance even if the film’s trailers have gone out of their way to remove all doubt as to the question of his guilt. Whether its hitting on Kale’s over-extended mom (Carrie Anne Moss who seems to have entered this casting director’s black hole of “caustic MILF;” can’t wait for the eventual multi-episode stint on “Desperate Housewives”) like Chris Sarandon in Fright Night or forcing himself into Roemer’s car and then politely (no, really) asking her to please stop stalking him, Morse rides an uncomfortable line between creep and creepy that’s ultimately a lot more interesting than whatever busywork his younger costars are occupying themselves with. Almost in response to how frantic and cluttered the film itself is, Morse seems to be moving at his own laconic pace, showing his cards only when he’s good and ready.
Unfortunately he not only throws his hand down at the end of the second act, his character also dumps out the entire deck of Bicycle onto the table. After narrowly averting yet another one of pesky Kale’s attempts to dig up dirt on him (and in the process, bringing the police down upon his home), Turner goes on a kill-crazy rampage, bludgeoning Kale’s mom and hitting his best friend with a bat before coming for Kale himself. Sooner than you can say “Here’s Johnny,” Turner is busting down doors, monologuing about how Kale almost foiled his evil plan and skulking in the shadows waiting to pounce. At this point the film enters the lightning round where it proceeds to rip-off every single serial killer film of the past twenty years as Kale moves through Turner’s hidden torture chamber replete with dank lighting, slowly decomposing bodies, moats and icky-looking surgical tools. All that’s missing at this point is a small yapping dog and a bottle of lotion.
Disturbia was never in danger of being mistaken as a good film but watching the film descend to generic shocks and Terminator-like action, I was reminded of another under-criticized genre film which, after writing itself into a corner, threw its carefully considered claustrophobia out the window in favor of armed madmen hurtling down the stairs with a manic look in their eyes. That film was called Red Eye and it was written by Disturbia author Carl Ellsworth. Oh dear, we’ve got a pattern.
What ultimately frustrates me about Disturbia and now has me concerned for Y: The Last Man is how unwilling this film is to engage with any issue beneath the surface, clinging with all its might to the film’s high concept premise and its product placement set dressing. Y:TLM is such a thematically messy, dense, self-aware piece of storytelling yet all I can envision is Ryan Reynolds and a his pet monkey cracking wise and trying to get laid. I see nothing in this film, or for that matter any film Caruso has directed, that tells me he’s interested in anything more then kicking slick product down the assembly line and pandering to the Ritalin-immune, post-MTV generation.