Two Out of Five Stars
Rated PG13/115 min.
My favorite TV show was always The Twilight Zone, which asked its viewers, what would you do? An interesting episode of the ’80s version of the show was called “Button, Button,” written by Richard Matheson, about a couple who were given a box with a red button on top from a strange man, who told them if they pushed the button they would receive thousands of dollars, but someone they didn’t know would die. Now, that episode gets a feature-length adaptation from writer/director Richard Kelly, who gave us the visionary Donnie Darko and the messy but always interesting Southland Tales.
Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play a troubled couple who are given the box by a nameless man with a disfigured face (Frank Langella) and ponder whether to press the red button or go on with their unremarkable lives. This is the most focused film Kelly has made and, while it is an elaborate expansion on a simple idea, he goes in intriguing directions that Matheson and even Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling would approve of. The look of the movie is terrific, as it not only recreates the decor of 1976 but also the stylistic appearance of a ’70s film, with its soft, fuzzy imagery and artsy framing.
Diaz is touching as the melancholy school teacher with a sad past and Marsden is equally good as her husband, but Langella—so great playing everything from Richard Nixon to Dracula—is strangely not menacing enough, even with grotesque make-up effects aiding him.
In the end, the film is weird—and not always in a good way. The tone is deadly serious, but many moments are unintentionally hilarious, especially whenever Kelly has some goofy-looking extras stare into the camera and offer a “menacing” look. There are other moments that are meant to be chilling but are so silly, I laughed aloud during the screening (and I wasn’t alone).
The complex story takes a while to take off and doesn’t really get going until the third act, with a bizarre, campy set piece in a library that offers some cool special effects and kick-starts the rest of the film. Without giving away a single plot point, I’ll say that the climax is compelling and remarkably cruel in ways you don’t normally see in a Hollywood movie.
Even with a few cool and unsettling scenes, the strong lead actors and better art direction than a whole season of That ’70s Show, there are several sequences here that are so absurd, they sap the film’s momentum and threaten to derail it entirely.
I like The Box the more I think about it, but something this strange and uneven is a good bet for DVD, not the big screen. Which—given its small-screen beginnings—seems about right. MauiTime, Barry Wurst II