Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images, 116 minutes
"The Box" doesn't push the right buttons, ends up a mess
Whatever you do, don't open any mysterious packages left on your doorstep by a man with half of his face gone. That's basically the set-up for the sloppy new horror sci-fi thriller "The Box" starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden and directed by "Donnie Darko's" Richard Kelly. Lacking any compelling mystery or coherency, it isn't well-executed on any level; it starts out well and then falls apart halfway through the film under a series of ridiculous, new-agey twists.
Norma (Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (Marsden), a suburban couple with a young child, receive a simple wooden box as a gift, which bears fatal and irrevocable consequences. A mysterious stranger ("Frost/Nixon" Oscar nominee Frank Langella), delivers the message that the box promises to bestow upon its owner $1 million with the press of a button. But, pressing this button will simultaneously cause the death of another human being somewhere in the world; someone they don't know. With just 24 hours to have the box in their possession, Norma and Arthur find themselves in the cross-hairs of a startling moral dilemma and must face the true nature of their humanity.
"The Box" is a thriller without an absorbing, involving plotline and lacks a subdued creepiness that something like this should possess. "The Box" has intriguing source material: it's based on a 1970 Richard Matheson short story "Button, Button" that was featured in the 1980's TV version of "The Twilight Zone." The couple receives a box. Press the button and you get a million dollars, someone they don't know dies. Easy as that, right? Kelly's wildly uneven, unfocused script has too many ridiculous new-agey, sci-fi turns and has difficulty in fleshing out the characters.
It doesn't help that the lead role in "The Box" is played by Diaz, an engaging actress who lacks depth and acting skills to pull the movie off. Her inconsistent Southern drawl comes and goes so frequently in the film that it throws the film off-kilter and by the time it reaches its totally preposterous climax you might actually be happy with her character's fate. Marsden is an equally empty but likable actor in the vein of Ben Affleck, while Langella gives a hammy, take-the-money-and-run performance as the disfigured bad guy. Fine and funny character actress Celia Weston steals a few scenes as Diaz's straight-talking mother.
Kelly has been trying to duplicate his success from the brilliant "Donnie Darko" a few years back, and while "The Box" is more accessible than his genuinely awful "Southland Tales," it comes apart halfway through (you'll know exactly when, and it involves a lot of water), making it even more difficult to buy into the premise with already unsympathetic characters.
Kelly is a gifted but unfocused director who mishandles a few scenes to the point that they become unintentionally laughable (you'll get a kick out of some weird people following Marsden around in a library - funny but not creepy as it was intended). It doesn't help that the music, editing and set design seem cheesy and second-rate, and it's largely unnecessary to have the film set in the 1970s when it could've taken place at any time period.
"The Box" is another unfortunate mess and another misfire from the director, who hasn't been able to achieve the success from "Donnie Darko." Don't bother with "The Box," a movie that pushes all the wrong buttons.