Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Jacket

To borrow a joke from David Spade, I liked The Jacket the first time I saw it...when it was called 12 Monkeys.

Okay, the two movies are not exactly identical, and there is something to admire in The Jacket's overreaching intentionally confusing proto-sci fi trippiness. But this is about as obvious as rip-offs get.

Here is a vague plot description of Terry Gilliam's 1995 masterpiece 12 Monkeys:

A mental patient claiming to come from the future slowly convinces his therapist as to the validity of his story, with the help of a fellow patient and increasingly compelling evidence of his travels through time. Eventually, his confused investigation leads him to confront the circumstances of his own death.

Now, here is a vague plot description of The Jacket, John Maybury's 2005 psychological thriller:

A mental patient claiming to frequently visit the future during isolation treatments slowly convinces his therapist as to the validity of his story, with the help of a fellow patient and increasingly compelling evidence of his travels through time. Eventually, hsi confused investigation leads him to confront the circumstances of his own death.

I mean, COME ON.

If the two movies merely shared a plot, I might be willing to forgive the transgression. But Maybury continually returns to an exploration of the exact same themes Gilliam chose to riff on a full decade ago. Take the scene where delusional Gulf War vet John Starks (Adrien Brody) first tells his compassionate therapist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) about his time travel abilities. She doubts him both because time travel is impossible and because he's already been deemed insane. The fact that he's delusional can be used to rebut any claim he could theoretically make, plunging him into an existential despair.

This very same scene plays out in 12 Monkeys to similar effect - the entire notion of time travel only serving to record and satsify the inevitable movements of life. So, no matter how hard The Jacket tries to blow your mind, it never once escapes the sad reality that, as filmgoers, we've been down this very same road before.

It's too bad, because the first 15 minutes or so are pretty smashing. It's rare that the most hallucinatory passage in an entire movie will come right up front, but that's how it is here. Maybury kicks off with a brief, shockingly violent segment featuring Starks in the Gulf War, culminating in a shot to the head that appears fatal.

We're told very quickly that he survives, and cut to a year later, wiht Starks wandering a desolate Vermont highway, hitchhiking. He meets a burnout single mom and her adorable daughter, and shows them a brief kindness. Then, in a flash, we find him in a mental asylum, having been tried for the murder of a police officer and found not guilty by reason of insanity.

All this stuff works great. It's all pieced together in a woozy, disjointed, stacatto way that's truly disorienting and bizarre, simulating a kind of hyperactive, druggy amnesia. But once the film gets into the inner workings of the institution, and particularly the strange experiments of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), everything gets bogged down by psychobabble and, yes, inevitable comparisons to a certain 1995 film by a certain ex-member of Monty Python.

As for the time travel stuff, it's fairly straightforward, and unlikely to satisfy hardcore sci-fi fans who'd probably prefer the mind-bending theoretical take of something like Primer. Starks is drugged by Becker, tied up in a strait jacket (the "jacket" of the title) and placed inside one of those drawers at the morgue for several hours. While in there, he's rocketed forward in time to 2007 (remember, the film is set immediately post Gulf War, in 1992), where he romances the young girl he met by the side of the road (played as an adult by Keira Knightley in an obnoxious performance done with a bad American accent).

So, of course, he's eventually confronted by the distinctly 12 Monkeys-esque dilmenna of whether to dwell in the world of his mind or the realm of the real, and how to distinguish between the two when they seem complimentary rather than contradictory. It's pretty interesting, and the way Brody underplays the character makes the films somewhat cornball ending more palatable, but it never really rises above the level of a riff on a previous, better film.

Every once in a while, you see a movie like this - a low-budget film hoping to win fans by clearly aping a previous popular film with a devoted, culty audience. Last year's The Machinist reminded me more than a bit of Fight Club, The Assassination of Richard Nixon obviously borrows heavily from Taxi Driver, and let's not even get into the woefully poor Matrix clone Equilibrium.

On one level, I understand this as a reality of the film business. It's far easier to get a film greenlit if it reminds everyone of a super-popular film that has been previously marketed with great success. If you're an executive who can get fired for making unwise development decisions, you want to back the project with the best chance of satisfying the biggest audience.

But on the personal level, many of these are the films of young filmmakers, of guys who haven't really made a name for themselves yet and want to establish a larger audience. (Okay, so Brad Anderson, who made The Machinist has made several other films, some of them not even obviously ripped off from other movies...he's still hardly a household name and a guy trying to build his audience.) Wouldn't they want to at least try to innovate a little, to separate themselves from everyone else by injecting some kind of originality into their movies?

The guy who made The Jacket, John Maybury, has according to IMDB made mostly short films, and a few features unseen by me. Though his direction works well enough, in large part due to the fine editing of Emma Hickox, this doesn't bode well for his abilities as a storyteller. The Jacket is by turns overly obvious and needlessly obtuse. But above all else, it's familiar, which is never a good thing for a psychological thriller.

No comments: