Have you ever actually tried watching paint dry? A sloth walk? Grass grow? You can have all the "thrills" with none of the chills courtesy of "The Box," the painfully sluggish new sci-fi morality play from "Donnie Darko" creator Richard Kelly.
It's as if its stars, Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as the financially strapped yuppie couple Norma and Arthur, were on a continuous, prime time-mandated 10-second delay.
Think I'm exaggerating? Here's an example (with footnotes).
Arthur: "Do you know that guy?" (That would be Frank Langella as the mysterious man in a greatcoat, bowler hat and half a face who delivers the "box" and its deadly caveats).
Now, go buy some popcorn. No hurry. Got it? Great.
Norma: "No. . . . " (She adjusts her scarf, glances around, takes a breath) . . . I don't."
You really expect more from Kelly, whose brainy, if sometimes unsteady, first feature effort gave us the cult sci-fi thriller "Donnie Darko," with its great look and clever black comedy cut at suburban life. Kelly usually has the touch when it comes to the subversive, but he's gone wildly off course with "The Box," and I, for one, am wildly disappointed, but you've probably guessed.
Here's the setup. It's 1976, and Arthur and most of the other players in the film are into rocket science, a world where high-tech mysteries hang heavy in the air. His dreams of being an astronaut are dashed by two letters of rejection from NASA -- one sent to his work, another to his home. Why? As I said, there are mysteries here.
Meanwhile, Norma is a teacher at a pricey private school. She's got a limp and a reliance on pain pills that make her look like House's long lost sister. But Norma's a trooper because she and Arthur have a very precocious son named Walter (Sam Oz Stone), who they'll do just about anything for, a fact that will become significant, trust me.
Despite her dedication to her students -- she even interrupts her Sartre lecture to show the kids her bum foot after a mouthy one asks -- Norma is about to learn that she will no longer get the tuition discount for her son. Oh my, can things get worse?
Yes, Norma, they can. Enter Arlington Steward (Langella), a missing scientist who was famously struck and killed by lightning, thus the nasty crater in the left cheek. But, surprise, he's not dead, or is he, or is he something else entirely. . . . More mystery.
All we know about Arlington (Ari or Al just doesn't quite fit) is that he's the box man, dropping it off wrapped in plain brown paper on Arthur and Norma's porch. Keep in mind this is pre-9/11, so they don't think twice about picking it up, bringing it in and opening it up. Bad move.
Here's the catch -- inside is another box, this one wooden with a big red button on top that looks as if it was borrowed from "Family Feud." Arthur and Norma have 24 hours to press the button or not. If they do, they get a million bucks, tax-free. The only downside is that someone they don't know will die. Oh, well, maybe it'll be someone very old or very sick -- just the sort of moral arguments they will mull as they try to decide.
From here it gets really crazy: To wit, there are lots of dazed-looking people wandering around getting bloody noses. They live in a motel at night and hang out in a library by day. Maybe to avoid late fees on returned books?
There are strange files and microfiche on the very same subject, but in different parts of the library. There are three big liquid blobs, also in the library, that transport you to good or bad places. Meanwhile, people in the neighborhood are dropping like flies. Norma's really sorry she decided to push that button. Arthur's pretty testy about it too. And Walter, he's just a pawn in the game. But a smart new take on weighty moral issues is nowhere to be found.
Kelly does some nice things with staging and lighting, but really, it's all for naught, because the narrative is so fractured and foolish. What the plot doesn't decimate, the film's slower-than-a-clogged-drain pacing does. Sadly, this is one box that's just not worth picking up off the porch, much less opening, not even for a million dollars.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release