Considering that director Richard Kelly's 2001 film Donnie Darko inspired such a ravenous cult following, you'd think that his 2009 thriller The Box would at least have to be mildly entertaining. And, in fairness, it is sometimes. But the cool moments scattered throughout this masturbatory extended Twilight Zone episode are way too few and far between -- especially considering how high Kelly aims in the movie's second half.
The setup arbitrarily places us in the year 1974, before moving to the earth-toned home of Richmond, VA couple Arthur (James Marsden), who's some kind of NASA technician working on a Mars explorer, and Norma (Cameron Diaz), an English teacher at a private school -- whose occupation is really only mentioned so that Kelly can introduce the movie's ham-fisted recurring theme of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist stage play +No Exit (which Kelly ironically calls on again and again with all the artfulness of the freshman lit class where he probably formulated this element of the screenplay). But such creative embarrassments don't really begin to unfold until the second act. Things aren't so bad at the beginning; we're just getting used to Norma and Arthur's avocado-green appliances and hyper-stylized dialogue (think Southern-fried Forbidden Planet) when the doorbell rings and Frank Langella leaves the premise on the front stoop.
That premise being a box with a big red button on top, which will reward the family with a million dollars if they push it -- with the catch that somebody in the world somewhere will die as a direct but inexplicable result. And the prospect comes not a moment too soon, as Arthur has just been denied acceptance into the Astronaut Corps, and Norma's employer is canceling the faculty discount that they need in order for their son, Walter, to attend. As long as you can get on board with the old-school-movie way that people talk (remember, this didn't work in Attack of the Clones), it's mostly fun up to this point. Between the spooky, theatrical score and Langella's half-eaten face, the film evokes a palpably ominous feeling of curiosity and dread.
The only problem is that in the second half, Kelly jumps off an M. Night Shyamalan cliff into a gorge of heavy-handed, genre-hopping confusion and inscrutable, government-conspiracy/pseudo-spiritual plot twists that somehow all add up to a slow-moving bore. It's hard to put your finger on just why all this indulgent weirdness fails so badly -- Kelly certainly showed the same earnest vision with Donnie Darko. But The Box lacks the charm that made Darko feel compelling -- even though the plot probably didn't make any more sense.