September 21, 2006

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The Black Dahlia (R)
Brian De Palma gets a group of kids together to put on a B-movie that uses the visual cues of film noir and the plot development of an overheated crime novel (one missing a good chunk of its pages) and he calls it The Black Dahlia, a movie that has almost nothing to do with the notorious real-life Los Angeles murder victim of the same name.

Perhaps James Ellroy’s book on which this film is based is cut from the same silky smooth style of pulp fiction from whence came L.A. Confidential. This movie bears little resemblance to the 1997 film that Ellroy book spawned. Sure, Veronica Lake hair and Hollywood lipstick abound, but where that movie was glamorous fun, The Black Dahlia is a laughable mess.

Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) finds himself partnered with fellow one-time boxer Sgt. Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). The two barely survive a shootout only to stumble across the dead, carved-up body of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), a girl the newspapers would soon call the Black Dahlia. Her murder is particularly gruesome and, like all good Ellroy heroes, Bucky and Lee are particularly prone to hyperventilate over harm done to women. Lee becomes instantly, inexplicably obsessed with the Dahlia’s murder, much to the chagrin of his live-in girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson, who apparently decided to go as Lana Turner for Halloween). Bucky, ever narrating, is also caught up in the case, though he’s also eager to get back to the case to which he and Lee were originally assigned. Nonetheless, Bucky goes digging around and comes up with Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), the trashy daughter of an extremely wealthy family who has a rich-lady-in-a-Marx-Brothers-film “to-mah-to” accent. Madeleine frequents, gasp, lesbian bars and dresses like the Dahlia. Her fondness for the ladies does not, however, stop her from trampily coming on to Bucky any more than his supposed righteousness keeps Bucky from leaping to bed with Madeleine.

But first, we are treated to the most ridiculous, hilarious scene in any movie in, well, a good long while. When Bucky comes to the Linscott mansion to pick up Madeleine for their sleazy date, she informs him that her dad, a big fan of boxing, wants to meet Bucky. So Bucky sits down with the Linscott family, including the gin-soaked mother (Fiona Shaw) and the obscene doodle-making daughter (Rachel Miner). The family is grotesque, like Brahmins trying out for the Addams family. The scene is laughable, on purpose probably, but also completely out of sync with the movie thus far.

Up until then, you see, the movie has been just sort of a lousy approximation of a 1940s-style crime film — a low-rent Double Indemnity. At this point, though, Dahlia begins to tack an even weirder course, best exemplified by Swank’s utterly strange accent when she breathily tells a suddenly disgusted-with-himself Bucky “don’t leave, sugah.” I must admit I did laugh out loud at that scene, which is still several steps in the timeline ahead of the bewildering ending which features a twist and another twist and then another twist, each one sending Bucky back and forth between the good (sorta) Kay and the bad (definitely) Madeleine.

I’m sure there will be De Palma fans who will talk about the visual artistry of this film, the way that the story is told through smoldering cigarettes and the crispness of hairdos. And, OK, there’s some of that. But no amount of sleek nightclub sets and just-the-facts-ma’am fedoras can overcome the fact that most of the film is pure community-theater-doing-an-adaptation-of-choose-your-favorite-Edward-G.-Robinson-film hokum. Finally, something to fill out that Ed Wood double feature. D+

— Amy Diaz


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