Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Simon Says

Year: 2015
Director: Joel Edgerton
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Overhype is a very dangerous thing. It has led to generations of Citizen Kane haters and more incensed comments on Kubrick message boards than there are frames in his films. Overhype can poison the mind and disillusion the soul, and I urge you not to let its sickly sway take hold of you. I would also like to politely point out that, per the Rotten Tomatoes algorithm, 100 reviewers giving a movie three stars out of five is enough to earn it a 93 percent rating. Sometimes a number is only math.

Apropos of nothing, I assure you, I have recently screened The Gift, the new stalker thriller out of the Blumhouse stable. The fewer trailers you’ve seen for it, the better. The fewer Blumhouse movies you’ve seen going into it, the better. The less you expect from it, the more it has to offer.

Like a Secret Santa exchange. Who knows, a $5 TJ Maxx gift card might be useful in an emergency.

The story of The Gift is a relatively simple one. Chicago couple Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) have recently moved to California, close to Simon’s hometown, because he got a new job at a big Corporation doing Business. If he does enough Meetings, he can win enough Handshakes to advance to the next level and earn a Promotion. Meanwhile Robyn is left at home with the frustratingly fruitless and intangible job of trying to start a family. When they run into Gordo (director Joel Edgerton), an old classmate of Simon’s, she invites him over despite her husband’s protestations, thus beginning a brief and uncomfortable friendship.

Over the course of several weeks, Gordo bestows the couple with increasingly expensive gifts, perturbing Simon to the point that he politely suggests that they maybe never see each other again. Afterward, they begin to experience strange phenomena that might be unrelated but may just be Gordo exacting his revenge. During the course of this stress, Robyn discovers that there may be more to her husband than meets the eyes and her entire life is cast into doubt as she delves into the murky past between Gordo and Simon.

It’s more than just embarrassing yearbook photos.

Really, The Gift is typical Blumhouse fare through and through, no matter how much they try to demurely hide behind their “BH” label. There’s not a lot to differentiate the film from the nuts and bots of films like The Purge or Mockingbird, stripped of their horror trappings and sold for scrap. The only true break from the formula is that – aside from two dastardly tawdry bargain bin jump scares – the film focuses exclusively on interpersonal drama rather than thrills and spills.

This is where the film truly garners its reputation of “really not as bad as I thought it was going to be.” Jason Bateman has made a habit of playing barely concealed douchebags, and that sharply honed skill comes in handy when it comes time to cast doubt on his intentions. And he’s flanked by a pair of equally committed performers who provide an emotional human core beneath the slickly impersonal online real estate tour cinematography (which only once arranges a truly striking image – Bateman bathed in the glow of his car’s brake light). And as the plot unspools, a shocking surfeit of character details surface on both sides of the table, giving the audience quite a bit to chew on thematically. It’s a good thing, too, because the thriller elements of The Gift are about as dry and malnutrituous as a mouthful of sawdust.

It’s perhaps not a resounding success, considering that The Gift is first and foremost geared toward psycho thriller fanatics. Bu the sad fact is that the film’s most slack and ill-used elements are also its raison-d'être. Gordo’s stalking is maddeningly ill-paced, hardly escalating above a whisper before it’s cut off at the knees in favor of an abortive subplot that the movie pursues with cheery abandon, before chucking all its plot threads in a blender and wrapping up using the precise wrong device as its emotional lynchpin. Words can’t express how ineffably miscalculated this film’s third act is, and how resolutely it bungles the pristinely entertaining dramatic beats that drive the story up to that point.

It’s like a high school hookup: An hour of intense anticipation followed by a sloppy flurry of motion, a sudden unexpected mess, and embarrassed disappointment. And suddenly you’re out ten bucks on a date you’ll never get back.

The Gift has enough going on in its surprisingly humanistic screenplay to overcome its more egregious flaws and it’s a suitably effective debut for Edgerton, but let’s hope that his next film is all drama, no thrills. On purpose, I mean. If you go into The Gift with an open heart and mind there’s certainly plenty to enjoy, but don’t expect the second coming of Edward Cullen (cinema’s most accomplished stalker). It’s an easy breezy popcorn drama with the best Jason Bateman performance in several years, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

TL;DR: The Gift is a half-decent drama but an abortive thriller.
Rating: 7/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Don't feel obligated. They already made more than their budget back.
Word Count: 894

1 comment:

  1. Weirdly, perhaps, I was rather excited about The Gift--though it seems likely that having my expectations tempered is a good thing.

    Either way, I'll probably be catching it at home. I'm moving to Pittsburgh in two days, and between the care I really ought to be taking with my money and the General hectitude of things, it's probably all old movies, all the time, for a little while anyway.

    Of course, I'm watching Fantastic Four tonight, so "care with money" and "spending time with the classics" obviously aren't quite the priorities they should be.