I can’t imagine that adapting a short story that’s already been adapted into an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and attempting to extend it into a feature length is an easy task. Especially when the original story has that built-in single-note ethical spin that seemed perfect for Serling and company to weave into their morality tales. There was a chance that Richard Kelly could have built a huge framework for The Box around a single ominous punchline. A chance. But to no avail.
A mysterious stranger named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) delivers a box to the doorstep of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) and gives them the opportunity to push a button that will kill someone they don’t know and earn them a tax-free million.
The central premise of the film is a fairly fascinating moral question of how much another person’s life is worth and what lengths you’d go to set your finances in order. But that heavy lifting was really done when author Richard Matheson wrote the story in the first place. In fact, most of the heavy lifting of this film comes not from Richard Kelly, but from either the source material or the original episode. Adding onto the pile, Kelly creates a longer narrative about a middle class couple that spends too much money, drives a really, really nice car, and can’t afford to send their child to private school anymore on discount.
If it seems like I have little sympathy for their situation, you probably won’t either.
And really, without that sympathy – without a true question of what depths one would have to go to before they take someone else’s life – the rest of the story falls pretty flat.
It also falls flat because the acting from Cameron Diaz is about as good as a regional theater actress stumbling her way through a Tennessee Williams play. Her southern accent is atrocious and she delivers almost every line with a incredible lack of emotion. On the other end of the spectrum is Frank Langella who places a quiet, business-like creepiness (even if his CGI scarring helps him sometimes and hurts him in others) onto the table next his diabolical box. Marsden is also a stand out, a great actor in a good role who is only hampered occasionally from some flowery dialog that even he seems to get sick at the sound of.
I also feel compelled to mention the score because of just how incredibly beautiful it is. It’s strange and experimental, beautiful and haunting, but it doesn’t belong anywhere this movie. Even as transcendent as it is, it plunks down into inappropriate times during scenes that almost give a Ba-Bum-Bum! quality to some of the dramatics.
On the whole, the moments before the button-pushing question is answered aren’t played to much intensity. Neither is the rest of the film. It’s also a mess in the same way that plagues all of Kelly’s work and it could use a keen editing knife to help it make more sense. However, unlike Donnie Darko, Kelly seems desperate to overexplain and infantalize his audience. He comes off as if he believes he’s the first person to ever understand his primer on Sartre – the directorial version of the kid waving his hand in the back of your philosophy class just a little too desperate to prove he knows the answer. He achieves this hand-waving through far too many scenes of exposition for things which come naturally out of the context (and even repeats some of the exposition or has random characters enter a scene solely to ask a question that will lead to more exposition and then dip back off-camera only to be seen as “NASA Worker #2″ or “Reporter in back of room” in the credits).
Without those moments, and with some far better acting from the lead, the movie could have been a great, strange entry. Instead, it ends up being fairly tedious with some weird moments that work sincerely and others that really add nothing to the story or the characters (like an abandoned chance at salvation, and a moment where a character is in one place and then another through the magic of editing).
While it seems natural for any movie or story with a moral question at its center to leave audiences discussing the conundrum afterwards, my friends and I stood around in the lobby instead questioning whether or not we should have bothered going to see The Box in the first place.
The Upside: Some good performances from Marsden and Langella, and several scenes that are really rewarding.
The Downside: A muddled story that doesn’t line up, a score that doesn’t line up, and a director who can’t be esoteric without attempting to let you know what he means.
On the Side: Richard Matheson is still alive, so he can watch it!