Rating: 2 out of 4 stars
Running time: 116 minutes
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella
Craig Given the choice to take a life at random for profit, would you do it?
Sure, you may vehemently say “no” now, but let’s see how you answer when “The Box” is right in front of you.
Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) are barely eking out a living in 1976 Richmond, Va.
Although they live a comfortable, upper-middle class life with their son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), their finances don’t quite cover everything.
When Walter’s private school tuition rate escalates and NASA worker Arthur gets turned down for a promotion, the situation becomes much more serious.
But, an opportunity for betterment may have just presented itself within a small parcel left on their doorstep. Containing a small apparatus with a shiny red button, the mystery of the box is revealed with a visit from the equally cryptic Arlington Steward (Frank Langella).
He extends a choice for Norma and Arthur: If they push the button, they will receive $1 million, no questions asked, and someone they don’t know will die as a result.
With 24 hours to decide, they weigh the pros and cons of pushing it — What if it kills a newborn baby? What if it kills a death row inmate? — and make their decision. But, as with any choice, the results are far-reaching, and Norma and Arthur may not be able to handle the consequences.
Diaz is extraordinarily touching as kind-hearted Norma, whose aspirations for a perfect life are admirably simple before the box comes into the picture.
Marsden is a tad harder to take as Arthur, a scientist and would-be astronaut, whose contributions to the 1970s Viking space probes of Mars play into the story just a little too much.
Langella is the one to watch, whether it’s because of his disturbing monotone or the fact that Steward is missing a fraction of his face. It’s just too bad that the actor doesn’t have better dialogue to recite.
The screenplay is the weak point of writer/director Richard Kelly’s third feature.
Reworking the structure of Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” — also made into an episode of the 1980s redo of “The Twilight Zone” — Kelly expands it with an unfortunate outcome.
Many short stories can work as longer narratives, but this isn’t one of them, as the power of Matheson’s tale gets stretched out like a piece of Silly Putty.
It’s not just the length of the movie, which is grossly padded out, but the kind of content and poorly defined characters with which Kelly fills it. He takes the focus in a generic direction with science fiction leanings rather than sticking to the meat of the story, which is a query into the inner goodness, greed and guilt of humanity.
An inclusion of the literary works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur C. Clarke — favorites of Norma and Arthur, respectively — shows that Kelly does comprehend the larger picture here, but it seems like he just can’t help himself in crafting a story that, like his debut “Donnie Darko,” poses questions he can’t answer and simply doesn’t make logical sense in its entirety.
The self-delusional “no loose ends” conclusion of “The Box” isn’t really what kills the film, though. The promising introduction and stirring ending box in a dull second act that nullifies any and all suspense or poignancy.
If only Kelly hadn’t pushed so many buttons so haphazardly.