There is poetry -- or a good rhyme, at least -- in the fact that Disney's new adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's 1845 novel The Count of Monte Cristo was written by a man better known as a producer and creator of TV game shows. Jay Wolpert has labored for decades in game-show land: Double Dare, Whew!, Hit Man, and Blackout are some of his creations, and for a time he produced The Price Is Right. As a devout student of fortune, of the kinks and quirks of the wheel, he should be better qualified than most writers to take on Dumas's epic study of ruin, reward, philosophy, and turning the world to one's ends. And as a onetime winner of Jeopardy!, he should be familiar with the figure of the strange, charismatic man dispensing magical wealth.
Sadly, Wolpert's reading of The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld), is a snooze. Here are a few of the more resonant close-ups: a man and his beloved, in silhouette -- he nobly stooping, she tenderly supplicating -- coming together for a kiss; a half-drowned sailor washed ashore, his weak fingers stirring crablike in the sand; a man and his beloved, separated by force, their joined hands cruelly wrenched asunder, fingertips dragging (the last time I saw this hoary device was in Adam Sandler's Big Daddy). And so on. You get the picture because you've got this picture many times before. It's a shame. Dumas was no snob; in fact he was a noted hack (41 novels in nine years, plus a sheaf of plays, for which he charged by the line). But he had flair and shamelessness; he was a one-man band, a twanger of heartstrings, a thumper of tubs. The 2002 version of his great novel is hackery of a different stripe, barnacled with cliché and empty of wit.
Jim Caviezel, speaking in a mincing, unplaceable Continental accent, plays Edmond Dantes, the young sailor falsely accused of being a Bonapartist agitator and imprisoned in a bleak rock off the port of Marseilles. Dantes's accuser, Fernand Mondego, is played with lipless zeal by Guy Pearce. Into the terrible Chateau d'If the innocent Dantes is dragged -- past wet, black walls, hearing the traditional hootings of torturees -- for his 14 years of unjust confinement. His torments begin. His eyes go wild and his grooming goes to hell, hair and beard lengthening until his face is a flickering pageant of the imprisoned and reviled -- Charles Manson one second, John Walker Lindh the next.
One day the floor bursts open and a dirty, gray-haired thing pushes through: It is the soil-encrusted pate of Richard Harris! Harris is typical of the sort of fine period furniture this production uses to give itself bottom; he brings experience, which is fortunate, because it takes a great deal of experience to convincingly deliver the line "For many years, I was private secretary to the enormously wealthy Cardinal Enrique Spada" while hoisting yourself out of a waist-deep hole. Gesturing snowily here and there, wheezing out his particular music, Harris's old priest becomes Dantes's friend and mentor. He teaches him to read, feeding his virgin mind with copies of The Prince and The Wealth of Nations (we know this because Reynolds helpfully shows us the spines of these books in close-up). A gamy sort of camaraderie comes over the dungeon dwellers; gaunt as a pair of Christs, they cackle over a barbecued rat and plan their escape. Dantes makes it; the priest doesn't. C'est la guerre.
The second act begins: Having been made rich by the discovery of the enormously wealthy Cardinal Enrique Spada's buried treasure, Dantes reinvents himself as the Count of Monte Cristo and takes lavish, leisurely revenge on those who did him down. As an artist and an entertainer, Dumas wasn't afraid to take a flying leap into the deep romantic chasm of the foreign and otherworldly. When his Count appears pale as a corpse in the Roman opera-box, trailing his loyal Nubian, the society ladies murmur about vampirism. And indeed, Monte Cristo has by this point become supernatural. Once fortune's enemy and slave, he is now its agent. Power and moneybags; as livid and alluring as a game-show host, his coin is the fate of men. Fingers on the buzzers!
But the Disney team miss all this. In one sense, it's a blameless sort of butchery they perform. (They just wish very earnestly to get their story told.) But then again, we are the ones who are being asked to watch it. Bad editing, I'm convinced, with its puzzling viewpoints and odd pockets of time, is what gives us the actual dismaying texture of cinematic failure. And it's unmistakable; within half a minute, you've lost your faith. The dream deflates. Editing at its highest is intuition and apperception, the quick shapes cast by the mind-fire. The camera in The Count of Monte Cristo hauls itself from image to image like a man taking half-convinced steps across a very muddy field. Confusion is all around: When Bonaparte first appears (Dumas had the sense to keep him offstage, a distant world-historical dynamo), he is shot from the ground up, as if in service to his imperial vanity. Some cuts seem lurchingly incompetent: The aforementioned head of Richard Harris, for example, erupts from the floor, and an instant later he is standing with his back to us in a dim corner of the cell. What happened? Who swallowed those 15 seconds? What for? Still other shots are prepared with a weird, tipsy deliberateness, like the partridges that scuttle down a corn row as a prelude to Guy Pearce's thundering arrival on horseback.
It hurts to say it, but Dumas might have been better served by the team of hucksters that made France's recent pre-revolutionary lycanthropic kung fu blockbuster Le Pacte des Loups -- another huge bore, but one that erred on the side of the sensational. Norman Mailer once said that having your book filmed was like having your dog shot. The restless shade of Dumas has endured several such executions, only to see the poor animal revived and shot again. May they make a cleaner job of it next time.
Mad endings have a vogue now. The ending of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive became famous for its many layers of irrationality and its invisible meaning. A mystery, discussed by everyone. Jay Leno even badgered the great auteur with tactless questions (Lynch was stoically unenlightening). And how did that ending make us -- the gulls, the cinemagoers -- feel? That feeling of being slightly ripped off -- was it genuine, or was it the phantom twinge of some amputated prophetic capacity, some gift we have lost, that only Lynch knows about?
The ending of Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko is very mad -- time and space are warped, events are erased, reality is pulled like a tooth, roots to the air -- but it won't occur to you to feel ripped off. You'll be too busy with your pity and terror and (perhaps) your amazement that a Tears for Fears song can sound so brave. The film's focal image, its retinal imprint, is of a separated jet engine, perfect in its detachment, spinning out of the sky and walloping with brutal, Garp-like absurdity into the roof of a suburban home. This image is the alpha and omega of Donnie Darko, which may be why the movie's general release in October of last year was so curiously muffled. Right now, the film is straggling through a small number of art houses, blowing a small number of minds, before the inevitable surrender to video. Whatever the screen size, it demands to be seen.
Donnie Darko himself (played with extraordinary commitment and care by Jake Gyllenhaal) begins the film lying on a mountain road at dawn, in a white-faced sprawl. He is 16 years old. He gets up blurrily, unsure of where he is, and picks up his bike. An accident? The rueful, private grin on his face as he freewheels back into town warns us otherwise: Donnie has been somewhere strange, and Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon" announces that a lunar cycle of destruction has begun. At home his parents and sister squabble about voting for Michael Dukakis -- this is the eighties. Donnie calls his sister a "fuckass" and she wonders aloud if her parents know that he has stopped taking his medication. At night he is wakened by a man's voice -- Wake up -- chiming in his head: chordal, artificially heated, like the disguised voice of a kidnapper. Wake up. The world is ending in 28 days. The next morning he comes to on the golf links.
Donnie is a high-school kid going crazy, and not slowly either. Fugue states, daytime hallucinations -- his shrink diagnoses the beginnings of paranoid schizophrenia, but Donnie has acquired the power to see into the future, where something awful is about to happen. Ectoplasm streams from his father's chest, a glassy column. Donnie's illness becomes science fiction to him, and he urgently seeks information about time travel. He is given a strange book, whose diagrams match his own visions. Everything starts to add up. This is the genius of Donnie Darko, and it's a splicing of dimensions worthy of Philip K. Dick. Donnie's conversations with his bemused science teacher ("So in order to travel through time, all you'd need to do would be to find one of these wormholes? These portals?" "Theoretically, yes.") are the stuff of classic, dry-as-dust speculative sci-fi, except that the wormhole here is Donnie. His paranoia is the rent in time through which all these intimations and shocks of coincidence come slipping. And paranoia is the most extraordinary plot device: a chapter you won't find in The Screenwriter's Bible. Foreshadowing becomes flashback, resolution becomes catalyst, and the linear progress of character, the inch-work of development, becomes a vortex.
Donnie Darko is writer-director Kelly's first feature. He is 26 years old. It would be surprising if the script didn't gleam a little with precocity, and it does. Some of the banter is a touch too snappy, and the satire of mainstream eighties culture -- the positivity guru whose basement is actually a suppurating trove of kiddie porn, for instance -- can be callow. But beyond all that is the writing's fearless adherence to the point where adolescent yearning, metaphysical vulnerability, and actual mental illness all collide. The film is also a love story. In its music (Joy Division, Tears for Fears), in its mood, there is a beauty in Donnie Darko that seals your throat with its immediacy. How many films can take us out there and bring us back? How many can show us a madness that leaves us more weakly and devotedly human?