Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Call it Fate, Call it Karma: Knowing
A Nicolas Cage performance is like the sun: you stare directly into it at your own risk. From silly hair to silly accents to plain old silly acting, Cage routinely serves as the walking punch-line in scenes that aren’t meant to be funny. On those terms, it’s fair to call Cage something of a joke as an actor, but he deserves some respect, too. If nothing else, Cage is a bankable joke, starring in about two movies a year and routinely winning the box office battle (on opening weekend, anyway) in the face of critical scorn. How does he do it? You tell me. Anyone who suffered through Ghost Rider shouldn’t want to see Next, just like anyone who winced through the trailer for Bangkok Dangerous shouldn’t want to see Bangkok Dangerous or any Cage movie thereafter. And yet Cage continues to star in films and attract audiences at the same time, almost as if fate were involved. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Cage’s latest film is Knowing, an inane sci-fi yarn about fate, “randomness” and disasters in which Cage plays John Koestler, a professor, widower and father who gets thrust into the part of investigator, protector and action hero. It might seem ridiculous on paper, and it is, but at the same time it’s a good role for Cage. Much like his Benjamin Gates character in the National Treasure films, Cage’s Koestler is an incidental lead: we don’t care what he thinks or how he feels, we just want him to move us from one plot point to the next. And move us, he does. True to form, Cage swings from under-animation to over-animation as if clueless about what’s in between, and it hardly matters. Knowing is so explosively absurd and so absurdly explosive that Cage’s performance is moot. You’ll find no bigger Cage loather than me, but I have to admit that I can’t think of a single actor out there who would have made this a better film.
Much to my surprise, it turns out that a bigger cinematic sin than casting Cage is utilizing a screenplay that was written by committee. Ryne Douglass Pearson, Juliet Snowdon and Stiles White are credited for Knowing’s screenplay, which feels like the cinematic equivalent of a potluck dinner in which no one arrived with the main course. Knowing is a mishmash of reheated leftovers. There isn’t a single thing about it that feels unique. Not its main character’s numbers obsession or his ability to see the future (The Number 23 meets Next). Not the menacing dudes in black coats (Dark City). Not the climactic visitation (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind). Not the decimation of Manhattan by natural disaster (The Day After Tomorrow, to pick one of way too many). Certainly not the creepy black-haired girl who forecasts doom (The Ring). Heck, not even the goofy sign language ritual between father and son (Sudden Death). Nothing. Knowing is a bucket of table scraps tossed into the empty trough that is March for our desperate consumption.
We should be offended by any film that treats its audience like undiscerning cattle, and yet I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that the cud tastes good from time to time. Not that it should come as a surprise. Knowing’s methods are tried and true, proven to please. Sure it’s eerie when Koestler must investigate the abandoned house in the middle of nowhere in the dark of night. Sure it’s exhilarating when a subway car goes screaming down the tracks toward another car that’s still servicing the platform during rush hour. Sure it’s compelling to try to figure out who the dudes in black are, and what they want and why they need to drive cars when they can seemingly materialize wherever they want. This kind of stuff – like serial killers and sex scenes – provides can’t-miss stimulation, but only for a short time. In the end, quality matters, and this is where the film fails to satisfy. Watching Knowing is like diving into a large bag of Funyuns; only those with the strongest of stomachs or the blandest of palates will make it all the way through without feeling nauseous.
When it comes down to it, the truly revolting thing about Knowing isn’t Cage’s acting or the blatancy of its unoriginality, it’s the sloppiness of its execution. This is a film, directed by Alex Proyas, that takes every shortcut available without shame. Need to make a search for a missing girl scary? Have people search the grounds by flashlight rather than turning on any building lights. Need to add an extra wrinkle to the cryptic sheet of numbers that’s at the center of the plot? Have the only two letters on the page (capital Es) inexplicably written backward so that they are mistaken for the number 33. Need to convey sorrow or worry or angst? Have the main character chug alcohol instead of, you know, emoting. Need to heighten the intensity? Have a police officer run in fear from a crashing plane that, due to poor staging, he couldn’t possibly see approaching. Need to heighten the intensity even further? Have the survivors of the plane crash run across the field while on fire. Still not intense enough? Create a subway crash in which the derailed train consumes thin CGI figures like a vacuum cleaner sucking up cartoon clouds of filth in a Hoover commercial. For every problem, Knowing provides a tired solution.
All that said, there will be worse films than Knowing this year, I’m sure of that. Here, when all else fails, at least we’ve got Rose Byrne, whose ability to take a poorly written character in ridiculous circumstances and make her seem semi-plausible is a considerable achievement. Also noteworthy is the show-stopping CGI spectacle of Manhattan being blown to bits, which is so impressively achieved that I can almost forgive the cliché. Almost. Knowing borrows from so many different films that it never defines itself. It’s a film with twists and turns and mysteries that becomes less interesting the more one thinks about it. Knowing, simply put, is a disaster long ago forecasted. This is a Nic Cage film, after all. Some things are written.