Director Richard Kelly, most known for his work on the terrific Donnie Darko, landed narrative gold when he optioned the rights to the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson because it has a great premise. What if you were given the option to gain one million dollars, but in doing so, you would recklessly kill someone in the process? This amazing idea has finally been translated to the big screen and it's more or less a mess. In an interview I recently conducted with Kelly, he explained that act one was pretty much already written. All he had to do was attach an act two and three to the narrative. Consequently, there is a distinct point in The Box where the intrigue from act one ends and the stupidity from the rest of the movie begins.
We are introduced to the characters as they lay in bed early one morning. Their sleep is interrupted by the ring of the doorbell and when they get to the door, they see a car pulling away with a mysterious box sitting on their doorstep. Attached is a note saying that at 5:00pm, a certain Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) will call upon them. Inside the box is a button and as promised, Steward arrives that night, with part of his face missing, and explains to Norma (Cameron Diaz) that her and her husband, Arthur (James Marsden), have a choice. They can either move on with their lives and continue with their money problems or push the button, which will have two results: 1) Someone, somewhere in the world that they do not know will die and 2) they will receive a cash payment of one million dollars. They have 24 hours to decide.
(I am going to reveal somewhere in this review what seems like a major spoiler, but it's not because it happens very early on, but if you care to not have anything ruined for you, stop reading now.)
Already, despite the cool premise, this movie runs into problems. It takes place in Virginia in 1976 and because of the setting, Norma and Arthur are not dealing with the current economic crisis. Their own financial troubles, which are poorly spelled out, stem only from their excessive spending. As examples, their son is in private school and Arthur drives an expensive Corvette. There are obvious alternatives to pulling themselves out of their financial funk. How about not driving your super expensive car or placing your son in a public school?
Furthermore, Arthur works for NASA, an organization I can only assume pays well, and he helped design the Viking, a camera sent up to space to take photos of Mars. If he's important enough of a scientist/engineer to work on such a valuable machine, the only possible reason he isn't making enough money is because he spends most of his days working on some type of blubbery pedal extremity to help his wife's gimpy foot rather than, you know, doing his job.
Being set in the 70's doesn't keep Norma from staying home either, however. She has a job herself as a teacher at the private school her son goes to. The point is that you never feel like the couple's money is dwindling. As far as I could tell, they were financially sound.
Of course, they end up pushing the button anyway and The Box starts to spin out of control into a twisty, turny not-nearly-as-intricate-as-it-thinks-it-is mystery picture that loses the luster set by the initial premise. What could have been an interesting, dramatic psychological examination of these two turns into a by-the-numbers affair with a twist that is either incredibly smart or highly unlikely. I can't decide which. I was more interested in the moral consequences that come with such a choice, not the action mystery that unfolds after, but the film drops the whole morality angle once the button is pushed.
Everything comes together in such a poor fashion that The Box ends up empty and meaningless. The actors have little chemistry together, the admittedly well done score is nonetheless far too prominent and overpowers the rest of the film, much of the dialogue is laughable and Mr. Steward's "employees," of which he claims to have many, are all too easy to spot because they either scarily stare through windows, manically laugh or speak in clever hyperbole like, "Someone pushing your buttons?" that gets annoying by the time the credits roll around.
I snickered at so much of this movie because it takes itself deathly serious, but comes across as just stupid. A woman sitting a few rows behind me, annoyed from the audience laughter, proclaimed late in the movie, "This is not a comedy!" It may as well have been.
The Box receives 1.5/5