Richard Matheson’s story “Button, Button” is a simple but sinister little tale about moral choices. A man presents you with a box and says that if you push the button, you will receive a great deal of money — and someone you don’t know will die.
For writer-director Richard Kelly, this idea was not enough. His new film “The Box,” based on the Matheson short story, is a sprawling fantasia with universal implications.
Kelly’s the guy who did “Donnie Darko,” that insta-cult picture that generated some real mystery. “Donnie Darko” and Kelly’s sophomore fiasco, “Southland Tales,” showed a director who sees ominous signs and portents in the smallest of everyday details.
In “The Box,” Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play the successful couple who receive the offer of money. An elegant stranger (Frank Langella, getting into it) appears at their door and describes the moral choice they have.
Half of his face is eaten away, for reasons we won’t learn until late in the movie. That’s more than you can say for many things in the film, which are never explained.
What’s the significance of Diaz’s four missing toes? Why does Marsden fail his psychological test at NASA? Who’s the jerky kid in Diaz’s literature class, and why are they studying Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Not Exit”?
Kelly is so hyperactive scattering these clues around, you can get exhausted — after all, “Donnie Darko” was all about picking up the references and figuring it all out.
The film is set in Richmond, Va., in 1976, just after NASA’s Viking program landed on Mars. What could this possibly have to do with Frank Langella ringing your doorbell with a box?
Don’t worry, Kelly will make it fit together. Or possibly not. After a certain point, “The Box” begins eating its own tail, dragging in everything but a doorway to hell. (Oops, spoke too soon — there it is.) Diaz and Marsden look stranded by the overstated dialogue and mystifying plot turns. Can’t blame them. Where “Donnie Darko” was sardonic, terse and mischievously funny, “The Box” is corny and solemn.
I’m afraid unintentional laughter may be the result. Maybe Kelly needs to think small next time, because his grander ideas are leading him through the wrong doorway.