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.


Fox said...

Nice job on working in a Time Cop reference into your review Jason! (I've never seen it, but still...)

I agree with you about Knowing, thought I don't hate it as much as you do. As you said, there will be much worse to come out this year (I think there already has been). At least it kept me entertained for a bit.

You've already noted many inexplicapble things about this movie, but another one is... [SPOILERS] ... why do the aliens even care to save the humans in the first place??

I gotta defend Cage a bit though. You're right about his shortcomings, but I think he works in movies like Ghost Rider and Gone in 60 Seconds. It's the muscular goofball in him that fits into those movies that don't really take themselves that serious to begin with. And I actually enjoy Ghost Rider. I think it looks really good.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: In answer to your [SPOILERS] question: I dunno. I also don't know why we should worry much about a plane crash or car crash if "everyone else" is about to get wiped out. But this is the logic of Knowing.

As for Cage ...

I agree with you that he "works" in Ghost Rider in that he (a) picks up a pay check and (b) looks totally absurd in a totally absurd movie. Not to mention that Wes Bentley kindly provides an even more cringe-worthy performance. Hmm. Maybe I should dust off my original Ghost Rider review and post it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, and another thing: I had two people in mind when I made that Time Cop reference. You were one of them. Glad you enjoyed.

Ed Howard said...

Leaving aside some of his actual "good" performances (like Wild At Heart, say), Cage has two great bad performances as far as I'm concerned: 1) his cameo role as Fu Manchu in one of the fake Grindhouse trailers; and 2) his "aahhh! not the bees! aaahhh my eyes" bear-suit woman-punching role in the (unintentionally?) hilarious Wicker Man remake. What these roles have in common is really embracing the badness of his acting, not to mention the complete and inevitable ridiculousness of virtually any movie that requires him to emote.

I haven't seen (and won't see) either Ghost Rider or Knowing, but I certainly do love a good Cage trainwreck every so often.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: Agreed on Fu Manchu. And, amazingly, I think Cage is terrific (in the proper way) in Adaptation, which seems impossible since there's two of him.

I knew what I was getting into with Knowing. And I certainly wasn't the only one who was laughing at the unintentional comedy. Cage has a gift for it.

Brew said...


Time Cop! Wow!! I might have to revisit that soon. I must say that I don’t recall the sign language gag between father and son, but when Ron Silver recently passed away, the first thing I thought of was that speech he gave about occupying the same space at the same time or however it went. And then the classic JCVD reply “don’t argue amongst yourselves”!!

I’m not a big fan of Nic Cage and I won’t be seeing this movie anytime soon, but I must say that I found him strangely enjoyable in The Weather Man. He’s good for a decent performance every so often.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ah, Brew! You would be the other person I was thinking of when I made the Time Cop reference.

So, wait, you remember Ron Silver's speech in Time Cop but nothing else? Now that is odd.

I haven't seen Time Cop since it came out (we saw it together, right?). My memory is that JCVD and his son have some sort of established hand gesture and so (spoiler warning) when JCVD goes under disguise as a hockey goalie he uses the hand gesture to signal to his son that it's him under the mask. (Hope I have that right.)

As for Cage, you've now found the perfect epitaph for his headstone: "He’s good for a decent performance every so often."

Brew said...

I know it's hard to keep your Van Damme straight since he's such a multi-dimensional actor, but I believe you might be thinking of Sudden Impact?

To further comment on Cage, it's interesting to see the path that his career has taken. He went from Best Actor to buffoon with that horrid performance in Con Air. I'm left to wonder if Leaving Las Vegas was a once-in-a-lifetime role for him, or if it's the material he now chooses? A similar example would be Cuba Gooding although Cage still gets big-time roles. I can understand someone like Mickey Rourke getting involed with drugs and boxing and retreating from acting and his once promising career going down with him, but these guys still work regularily and they just suck!

Richard Bellamy said...

I'm a fan of Timecop as well.

As for Cage, I'm not a fan of his - though he fit quite well in The Weather Man and I really thought he was quite good in Lord of War. As far as acting goes, he does a much better job in those two films than in Knowing, but, as Jason says, he moves us from "one plot point to the next."

As for the film - acknowledging its errors in logic and its rehashing of old elements - I loved it as an entertainment. I felt suspense - as I suspended my disbelief from a high hook; I felt chills; I felt gripped by the disasters, and the rehashed elements are elements I enjoy: a creepy girl scrawling numbers; disasters; aliens; synchronicity.

Jason Bellamy said...

Crap. It wasn't Time Cop, it was Sudden Death. (Actually, it wasn't Time Cop either, it was Timecop.) Sorry for the errors. I blame my intern.

Oh, wait, I don't have an intern. That would explain it.

I'm about to fix the story. Meanwhile, enjoy this scene from Sudden Death, perfect for April Fool's Day.

Joshua said...

I appreciate the Ghostbusters reference in the title.

Daniel said...

I think we've been over the gaps in logic at hokahey's place, but I just want to mention that I'm amused that we both took time to write so much about this movie, even if we hated it so. Sometimes I think bashing Cage offers some kind of fun, cathartic relief, especially knowing that he won't be harmed by it.

Cathy said...

Two thumbs up!I will definitely buy the Complete dvd collection TV series for my dad's birthday.