`Room' becomes too stuffy

Review: `Panic Room,' starring Jodie Foster, has holes in logic and breakdowns in believable behavior.

March 29, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Panic Room is as wearying as the endless working-out of an equation: How many life-or-death confrontations can you pack into a three-story Manhattan brownstone during 108 minutes? Quite a few, it turns out - but humor, emotion and spontaneous fun aren't part of the sum.

David Fincher, the cult director who also gave us Seven and The Game, works so methodically here that he defuses his own carefully planted surprises. He makes you hunger for a glitch or two in his suspense machine - a haywire performance, a flurry of oddball lines - but all you earn as respite from his grim proficiency are holes in logic and breakdowns in believable behavior.

When you cast Jodie Foster as your heroine these days, you're not going to get a star who overflows with human juices, no matter how game she is to run through her new home in breast-accentuating lingerie that rivals that of Julia-Louis Dreyfus in Watching Ellie. Hand her a diabetic daughter whose heart belongs to daddy (living across Central Park with a new woman) and what you have is the worst possible permutation of soap opera and melodrama: dry heartbreak.

Foster's ex, a pharmaceutical tycoon, has given her enough money to purchase what must be the biggest single-family living space in Manhattan while she goes back to school at Columbia. But she doesn't get to have an evening's peace in it.

I'm not betraying the suspense to say that a trio of thieves invades her space on move-in night, and that in order to escape them she and her daughter retreat to a panic room: a hidden room-within-a-room designed to be impregnable. To say much more would take the air out of a very leaden balloon. (Patrick Bauchau, as the husband, has the year's most thankless part to date; by the end, the role could be played by a hunk of raw meat on a broom.)

The movie has been compared to other confined-quarters thrillers; the most famous (and successful) is Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. But the key to Hitchcock's movie is the emotional hook of hero Jimmy Stewart laid up with a broken leg, itching to get back to photojournalism; as he watches a murder plot unfold in the apartment across his courtyard, you question how much of what he thinks he knows is actually the product of a restless and inflamed imagination. Then there's his fractious relationship with his lover, Grace Kelly, who tries to prove herself as a mate while Stewart gets used to the idea of a gorgeous woman as a partner in crime-solving. Voyeurism, male foolishness, the arrogance of a man behind a camera lens - all these elements build until Hitchcock comes to the scarifying climax of Stewart realizing that the killer is looking back at him.

By comparison, what do we get in Panic Room? Fincher and screenwriter David Koepp establish Foster as a protective mother - after all, her daughter is both mildly rebellious and diabetic - and make Foster antsy about the room that could save their lives. That's about it. Otherwise, the twists are about as prefabricated as something you'd put together from IKEA, the corporate bete noir of Fincher's previous Fight Club (by far his juiciest film).

The trio of invaders includes a rich kid (Jared Leto), a masked thug (Dwight Yoakum) and a big-hearted working man (Forest Whitaker), who wants to pull off a big score to support his family. Guess who wimps out? Guess who becomes homicidal? Guess who has pangs of conscience? The "revelations" of character about these three are just further functions of the plot: For example, Whitaker, we discover, installs panic rooms. (Sorry - I may have given one more slight twinge away.)

Seeing Panic Room in a packed, responsive house took me back - not in a good way - to the days when I attended schlock horror films like Prom Night during their opening weekends on Hollywood Boulevard. The only reaction Panic Room elicits is the same kind of call-and-response as a slasher movie: Inevitably, someone yells at Foster, "Get your butt to that phone!"

And when a self-consciously artful and obviously expensive movie like this one goes after such reactions, the weight of the enterprise may keep you from joining in the low-grade fun. Fincher designs his effects single-mindedly and unimaginatively. Maybe that's why even the quality of the audience cries and wisecracks at Panic Room don't compare to those at Prom Night.

Fincher is fixated on playing art-school games, right from the opening-credit sequence that mounts the names of the cast and creators in giant letters on enormous invisible marquees over views of entire city blocks. Throughout, he tests how much he can exaggerate the sights and sounds of his one set without becoming ludicrous.

With me, he failed: I snickered when he made the snap of a sheet on a freshly made bed sound like a mainsail whipping around in a hurricane. Panic Room is the kind of joyless, over-calculated hit that may leave viewers feeling not haunted but headachy.

SUN SCORE

** (two stars)

Panic Room

Starring Jodie Foster and Forest Whitaker

Directed by David Fincher

Rated R (violence, language)

Released by Columbia Pictures

Running time 108 minutes

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