Ridiculous screenplay sinks `Gothika'

November 21, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

At the center of Gothika is a ghost trying to get prison psychologist Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) to do something. In the course of the film, we discover that the ghost can appear wherever she wants, write things down, open a door, work a computer, throw people against a wall and do a mean soft shoe (I made that last one up, but here's betting she could).

So here's the question: Why doesn't she just up and tell the doc what she wants her to know? Or at least write it down?

Unfortunately, the easy answer - the only answer - is that that wouldn't leave us with much of a movie to watch. So instead of doing what she obviously can do, the ghost drops hints, writes cryptic phrases on fogged-up windows, makes Miranda see all sorts of weird visions and generally makes the poor shrink's life a living hell.

Gothika is silly stuff, made all the more regrettable by the apparent skill with which the movie was made everywhere but in the screenplay department. The sheer lunkheadedness of Sebastian Gutierrez's script is impossible to ignore.

By most accounts, Dr. Grey starts off the movie living what seems to be the good life, respected in her field, valued by her colleagues, even married to the boss. But then one dark and stormy night (ghosts seem to work best under the worst atmospheric conditions), she's driving home when suddenly a child appears in the middle of the street. Grey swerves off the road, gets out of the car and asks the obviously distraught child if she needs help. The child responds by bursting into flames, and next thing Miranda knows, she's waking up in a psychiatric ward and finding out that she killed her husband with an ax.

Hard to believe, but things only get worse, as the good doctor struggles to recall just what happened, struggles to sort through the weird images zipping through her head, struggles to find someone who will believe she's not guilty, struggles to survive in the same psychiatric ward where most of the patients she's treated have been confined, struggles to keep her dignity while being subjected to a group shower, struggles to hold her breath long enough to escape detection in the hospital swimming pool, struggles to persuade the guards to look the other way when she tries to escape and struggles to keep a straight face despite plot devices that give the concept of deus ex machina a bad name.

French director Mathieu Kassovitz shows considerable skill when it comes to setting mood (gloomy and confused) and keeping members of an audience on their collective toes; there are plenty of honest gotcha moments in Gothika. Too bad he couldn't apply some of that talent to the story and make it work without healthy doses of red herrings, leaps of faith and eye-rolling plot twists.

Besides Berry, the cast includes Robert Downey Jr. as a fellow psychiatrist who lusts for Grey, then finds himself assigned as her doctor; Charles S. Dutton as the unfortunate husband (who kisses his wife with an unseemly gusto - one wonders if this portends anything); and Penelope Cruz as a mental patient who knows secrets she isn't telling (again, in the name of ensuring the movie lasts more than five minutes).

Berry fights valiantly to make the movie work, and the degree to which it does is testimony to her ability and perseverance; throughout the film, she manages to look scared but not out of control. Miranda Grey the character is supposed to be a logical person coping with illogic. Halle Berry the actress is a skilled artist stuck in a hack story. Both character and actress deserve our sympathy.

Gothika

Starring Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr.

Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

Rated R (Violence, brief language and nudity)

Released by Warner Bros.

Time 95 minutes

Sun Score **

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