November 12, 2009

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The Box (PG-13)
A mysterious man with a mysterious box may be the answer to all of a couple’s problems or he could lead them to their destruction in The Box, a fun little sci-fi story.

Or maybe Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a shadowy man who is missing the skin on half his jaw, Two-Face-style, showed up at the home of Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) to find out the secret to Norma’s totally awesome post-modern take on mid-1970s Farrah hair. It’s a truly wondrous thing to behold — no bangs, really, but magically face-framing and sleek but also curly in just the right places. If I could push a button and kill somebody I don’t know but magically get Norma’s hair … I’d like to think I’d turn down the offer but, well, it looks good pulled back as well as down.

Since Norma already has great hair, the choice Arlington Steward offers her is this: push the big red button on the box and someone you don’t know will die; you, however, will receive a million dollars in cash. Choose not to and you still keep this crisp $100 bill as his creepy gift to you.

The fancy private school where Norma teaches has decided to end the discount her son was receiving on his tuition. She needs surgery to repair damage she received long ago to her foot. Arthur doesn’t get the promotion he’d been counting on — he works at NASA. They need the money, they want the money — maybe enough to convince themselves that pushing the button won’t really do anything.

They make their decision — still not sure they understand what their choice was — but Arthur can’t completely let Arlington Steward go. He wants to know more about the man, the box with the button and how it might all be connected to other crimes involving NASA employees. Of course, that kind of investigating is exactly what he was told not to do.

The Box starts strong and then slides into sci-fi gobbledeegook in its last third, like a perfect piece of cake that crumbles and flops over when it hits the plate. I tend to think some of this may come from making a self-contained nut of a narrative (as so many short stories are) into something bigger and broader. I haven’t read “Button, Button,” the Richard Matheson story on which the movie is based, but I think it’s a credit to the film that I now want to. The squishiness of the ending doesn’t completely erase the crispness of the beginning, when past tragedy and daily menace make the death-for-a-million-dollars offer seem less absurd, more like the kind of choice that (at least metaphorically) we might all one day be presented with.

And whatever it is that Cameron Diaz did here — whatever mix of hair and accent and 1976 wardrobe allowed her to turn in this kind of performance — she needs to do it again. This is one of her better performances in a long while. Looking back over her credits, I think it might be because she isn’t asked to be kittenish or a romantic heroine or in some way riff on her There’s Just Something About Mary performance. I don’t know if she knew this movie would likely fall into that forgettable here-today, replaced-with-a-disaster-movie-tomorrow category, but something about the way she approached it made her looser and surprisingly pleasant to watch as she navigated the spooky puzzle put before her. C+

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images. Written and directed by Richard Kelly (from a short story called “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson), The Box is an hour and 56 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.