The year is 1976, an innocent age in which an unmarked package is nothing to worry about, and half of Frank Langella walks around being mysterious. It’s a time when conspiracy lurks around every corner, when no one can be trusted; it’s the time a terrible movie occupies. It’s The Box.
Adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), The Box is a science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, conspiracy, romance, horror film with so many plot points and references that it caves in on itself, revealing in its wake the dusty remains of Cameron Diaz trying to act sincere.
When couple Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are visited by the deformed Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) who offers them cold hard cash in return for the couple’s cooperation in killing an unknown person, a series of off-the-wall events involving hypnotic, somnabulant peeping-Toms, government cover-ups and other-worldly magical nonsense are set off.
For starters, the goof-ball performances by Cameron Diaz and her supported cast (save Langella, at least the half that played in this movie) are heart-wrenching to watch — and that’s meant in the bad way. Like watching a third-grader trying her best in front of the class, it’s hard not to pity Diaz, whose fake Southern accent provides one of the best laughs the big screen has had to offer this year.
The Box feels like it was made over a period of at least 10 years, that writer-director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) sewed portions of the film together intermittently with little thought whatsoever. Maybe between different projects he wrote pieces of it, or after a long night of drinking, or sometimes in the dark he would just see where his pen took him.
The film has so much to say that it ends up talking over itself, as some messages and storylines are touched on briefly and never brought back again. It’s like trying to convince someone to convert to Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism all at the same time.
The film’s main message about greed and capitalism is muddied by its fantastical imagery and underdone higher-power allusions. It’s hard to take the message seriously when the film skips around so much—at one point exerting its foundation in reality and then at the next depicting some lady conjuring other dimensions.
References to Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur C. Clarke show an attempt at fleshing the tale out and conveying a message of philosophical importance (on life and death, forgiveness, sacrifice, technology), but are ultimately drowned out by the film’s other screaming ambitions.
The musical accompaniment is distracting and tedious. The film is afraid of silence, as its mismatched, annoying soundtrack is ever-present, a mistake that exemplifies the film’s hyperactivity.
In the end, it’s hard to tell what The Box is about (besides everything, that is). Even its more recognizable themes are underscored by smaller ones, like how women are more likely to give into greed than men, a subtle and sexist claim that works to showcase female weakness.
While The Box poses numerous challenging questions to the viewer in lightening-fast repetition (do not see the movie in order to understand that pun), by the end, it’s hard to care whether or not these questions are answered, or if they ever will be. Do you want to know what the box does? Of course you don’t.