City Paper is not for tourists
Beneath its glossy veneer, The Mothman Prophecies serves up yet another load of superstitious claptrap. Richard Gere, no stranger to off-screen mysticism, stars as John Klein, a Washington Post reporter who loses his wife in a freak automobile accident. After her death, he discovers peculiar drawings she made of a ghostly, mothlike creature.
Two years later, Klein sets off in his car for Richmond to interview Virginia’s governor, only to find himself mysteriously transported to dumpy Point Pleasant, W.Va., 400 miles from his intended destination. It seems that the winged creature his wife sketched has been haunting the town, issuing ominous warnings of forthcoming disasters to its spooked inhabitants, notably rifle-toting Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton), who angrily asserts that Klein has approached his house in the middle of the night on two previous occasions. The fortuitous appearance of levelheaded policewoman Connie Parker (Laura Linney) saves the hapless journalist from being blown away. Intrigued by a potentially hot story linked to his personal tragedy, he takes a room in a local motel and begins investigating the apparition known by locals as Mothman. Increasingly convinced that some ghastly event awaits Point Pleasant’s denizens, he struggles frantically to make sense of Mothman’s warnings to head off an impending catastrophe.
In his last film, the plot-hole-ridden Arlington Road, director Mark Pellington dealt with a similarly obsessed protagonist: a college professor, reeling from the death of his wife, who suspects that the members of the all-American family living across the street are terrorists. Based on John A. Keel’s nonfiction book The Mothman Prophecies, Richard Hatem’s equally paranoid screenplay for the present movie overflows with enigmas that it cavalierly leaves unexplained. Perhaps Hatem felt no obligation to do so, because the real-life events on which Keel based his book—strange mid-’60s sightings in Point Pleasant—have yet to be satisfactorily accounted for.
After the film’s brisk depiction of the accident that claims Klein’s wife, The Mothman Prophecies lapses into 90 minutes of tedium, largely consumed by the reporter’s telephonic communications with Mothman. (The specter’s choice of the phone as his medium of contact is both bewildering and dramatically numbing.) Pellington attempts to enliven these repetitious passages by employing a battery of stylistic devices—flamboyant crane shots, jarring color schemes, photographic distortions, tricky optical effects—but these merely underscore that nothing of consequence is happening. The climactic sequence, set on a collapsing suspension bridge, is unexpectedly riveting, dynamically staged, and breathlessly edited, but it arrives too late to redeem Hatem’s lethargic narrative.
Gere informs Klein with his polished if excessively familiar intensity, and Linney coasts through a humdrum role that requires only a fraction of her considerable talent. But their contributions are squandered on a screenplay too static and too shamelessly vacuous to conceal with acting and visual flimflammery.
In a last-ditch attempt to find a mate, soft-spoken John (Ben Chaplin), a lovelorn, 30-ish bank clerk stuck in a sleepy London suburb, consults a Russian mail-order-bride Web site. There he selects and purchases chain-smoking Nadia (Nicole Kidman), who claims to speak English but arrives at Heathrow with a vocabulary limited to “yes.” Although distracted by Nadia’s striking looks and voracious sexual appetite, John is frustrated by his inability to communicate with her. Angry that the matrimonial agency has misrepresented Nadia’s linguistic skills, he attempts to have her sent back, but the company refuses to respond to his increasingly agitated phone calls. His situation becomes more troubling on Nadia’s birthday, with the unannounced arrival of her boisterous Russian cousins, Alexei (Vincent Cassel) and Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz).
Birthday Girl’s opening reels left me wondering why the movie’s release was delayed for nearly two years. A collaboration by England’s Butterworth brothers—producer Steve, writer Tom, and writer-director Jez—it begins as a pleasantly atmospheric clash-of-cultures romantic comedy, brightly photographed by master cinematographer Oliver Stapleton and sprinkled with quirky touches such as John’s exasperation with the ants that have invaded his St. Albans row house. But after Nadia’s alleged cousins show up, the movie shifts gears from lighthearted comedy to heist caper to crime thriller to love story. The hodgepodge of genres refuses to cohere, resulting in a misfire that should have remained on the distributor’s shelf.
Cast with more sympathetic leads, Birthday Girl might not have seemed so messy. But sulky Australian ice princess Kidman (sporting an unflattering brunette dye job) and emotionally constipated Brit Chaplin make an unengaging couple, and Frenchmen Kassovitz (writer-director of the award-winning Hate) and Cassel attack their roles with a fierceness that negates the film’s comic thrust. As the level of physical violence escalates—Kidman receives more slaps and punches than any heroine in recent memory—Birthday Girl grows gratuitously nasty rather than darkly amusing.
Throwing together their narrative from incompatible spare parts, the Butterworths are blithely unconcerned with plausibility. Their staging of a bank robbery is about as exciting as cashing a check, and their telegraphed love-conquers-all denouement is insultingly perfunctory. The brothers would be well-advised to hold a family conference to decide what kind of movie they want to make before the cameras roll on their next project. CP