Friday, September 03, 2010

Donnie Darko (2001)

USA, 113 minutes
Director/writer: Richard Kelly
Photography: Steven Poster
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Holmes Osborne, Mary McDonnell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daveigh Chase, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, James Duval, Beth Grant, Katharine Ross, Seth Rogen

Yet another one that sadly loses a good bit of its oomph the more times you look at it. The main problem with Donnie Darko, or so it seems to me, is that it doesn't appear to have any particularly acute sense of itself or what it wants to be. And/or it's too ambitious, which could already be the chief distinguishing characteristic of its director and writer, Richard Kelly, at least if the other title I've seen by him, Southland Tales, is anything to go by. So what is Donnie Darko? Well, it's a little bit teen comedy (which may account for its otherwise mystifying setting in 1988, the furthest tail end of the teen comedy glory years), a little bit horror, a little bit science fiction, and a wee bit mental illness drama. The titular main character is a troubled teen in therapy and on psychotropic medication for vaguely referenced earlier transgressions, by all evidence ongoing, who as the movie begins narrowly escapes death when the engine from a jet aircraft (as yet unknown) mysteriously falls from the sky into his family's house, landing in the bedroom where he would have been sleeping but for the fact that he had spent the night sleepwalking, a more or less recent symptom. Then there's something about an elderly and failing neighbor, one Grandma Death, who Darko discovers published a book many years previously about time travel, which seems to be speaking to him personally. Also speaking to him personally is a man named Frank with a voice of doom who appears in an evil bunny costume. It starts to feel a bit as if the various shaggy loose ends of one would-be genre are there simply to cover for the others. This is not merely a brainless teen comedy with a loud Tears for Fears soundtrack—look, time travel! This is not some empty exercise in horror—look, a sensitive teen struggling to maintain his emotional equilibrium! This is no science fiction convolution—look, a man in a large bunny suit in a film not by David Lynch! The first time I saw this I was impressed with its bold strokes and a plot that seems to knot around back on itself. But it does not improve with close viewing, and so I think I am now giving up on it. Enjoy it for what it has, which includes those bold strokes and also a cast that goes through its paces effectively. Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Patrick Swayze, a very oddly pitched Drew Barrymore—the lot of them. They're doing the best they can. I'm blaming this mess on Kelly. In short: madness, I tell you, madness. Unfortunately, I have to mean that literally, because that oldest and easiest trick of all appears to be the one finally settled on here. That is, if it isn't actually a time travel story. That is, if it isn't actually a horror scenario. Oh, bother.

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