Friday, October 27, 2006

The Black Dahlia (DePalma, 2006)

Based on what is supposedly one of the most fascinating murder mysteries in California history, Brian DePalma’s latest exercise in cinematic superficiality is, unfortunately, a vacuous, tedious bore. To describe a DePalma film as pointless is, I suppose, a charge that is not likely to carry much weight. Even his best films have not usually been overloaded with substance, yet they have frequently been very entertaining, even thrilling. The Black Dahlia, by comparison, is a joyless, unadventurous mess in which we are introduced to a mystery which goes ignored for a large portion of the film only to be summed up hurriedly in the film’s final minutes long after we have ceased to care.

One of DePalma’s most critical mistakes is hitching his film’s success to the mumbly squinter, Josh Hartnett. As a cinematic presence, Hartnett is a virtual non-entity, making one long for the semi-charming dopiness of Keanu Reeves or Orlando Bloom. Hartnett makes his best attempt at the detached, rugged film noir protagonist, but succeeds only in detaching the viewer’s interest entirely. In the thankless role of female love interest to not only Hartnett’s character, but also Aaron Eckhart’s, is Scarlett Johansson, who a short time ago was one of the most compelling young actresses in Hollywood. Since then, Johansson has been overexposed and stuffed into roles that simply do not fit. Her awkward honesty and her groundedness are what made her so memorable in films like Ghost World and Lost in Translation. Here, with the make-up, costuming and hair-styling, she resembles nothing more than a living, breathing toy doll. Seemingly overwhelmed by her own appearance, or perhaps her shallow character, Johansson is surprisingly uncharismatic here with her gravelly voice, one of her greatest assets, now coming across as oddly out of place.

Since the film has no overriding purpose nor a compelling narrative drive, what little pleasure there is to be had from The Black Dahlia comes in isolated moments. DePalma’s reputed visual flair is largely absent here, although he does pull off at least one virtuoso shot at the beginning of a dinner party hosted by the bizarro family of Hilary Swank’s bisexual femme fatale. Indeed, this is really one of the only scenes in the film that truly work, perhaps because of the ensemble work which is successful in finding a nice blend of humor and mystery. It is a rare moment where we don’t feel as if we can easily anticipate the film’s next move. Mia Kirshner also impresses in occasional flashback scenes, playing the eventual murder victim who wants to be a movie star. In an audition scene, an off-screen character remarks upon her inability to play sadness. In a later scene, captured on film, we definitively see that emotion come shining through.

As two policemen pursue the killer of a young woman, it becomes evident that both grow to have an emotional attachment for a victim they never knew. It is here where a compelling film might have been made, with actual stakes for both the protagonists and the viewer. DePalma hints at an attachment that may be a more genuine feeling of love than any which is experienced by the characters that actually bed each other. Ultimately though, the director is much more interested in mining the sensationalistic situation for film noir-lite with a side serving of ridiculous camp. Even at his best, DePalma is a charismatic charlatan, offering shallow pleasures that cause you not to regret that your time has been wasted. At other times, as with The Black Dahlia, DePalma is unable to keep up appearances, finds that he has nothing substantial to fall back on and is exposed as something slightly different, but not nearly as romantic: an out-and-out fraud.



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