Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella
Back in 2001, then unknown director Richard Kelly exploded onto the scene with his directorial debut about a troubled youth named Donnie. It was very much a success story in the vein of Tarantino or Kevin Smith. While failing in the box office, it quickly developed a cult following and is often cited as one of the first true ‘cult classics’ of the 21st century. Naturally everyone was anticipating Richard Kelly’s next film, and unfortunately that film turned out to be Southland Tales which, while I have not seen personally, was critically derided. In this film, his third feature film, he attempts to take a short story originally written for the 1980’s revival of The Twilight Zone and make it a feature film. Adaptations are always tricky, no matter the original source. But taking something like a Twilight Zone story which is written specifically to be a short, sharp, shocking tale and trying to make it 2 hours long is perhaps even more tricky. So was it a success? In short, no. Many problems plagued the film, and ultimately it was unforgettable, messy, and at times incredibly boring.
The first hour of the film is essentially the entirety of the short story, stretched out of course. Norma (Diaz) and Arthur (Marsden) Lewis are a teacher and a NASA employee, respectively, who are having a bit of a hard time financially. One day they are given a box by a strange man named Arlington Steward (Langella) which contains a button. They are told that pressing the button would cause two things to happen. First, somewhere, someone they don’t know will die. Second, they will receive one million dollars in cash. They have 24 hours to decide, and as a testament to the money are given a crisp $100 bill (which Arthur uses his NASA powers to discover is real!!!). After debate, questioning, dismantling the box to see if there are any transmitters, and moral dilemma-ing, Norma suddenly hits the button, claiming ‘it’s just a button.’ Indeed, shortly after this we see someone dying elsewhere, although the details behind it are not revealed right away. Steward returns to give them the million, take the box away, and claim that it will be reprogrammed and ‘given to someone you don’t know.’
I was familiar with the Twilight Zone episode that comprised the first hour of the film, and was actually quite shocked that it completed this portion of the film so soon. The ending was quite powerful, so knowing that this somewhat ‘anti-climax’ had happened already made me wonder where it would go from there. Sure enough, the rest of the film veered incredibly far away from the source material, and devolved into a strange sci-fi thriller that was at times confusing and at times just lame. Some hints of Donnie Darko were present with incomprehensible foreshadowing (ie. characters doing things out of character to give the protagonists ‘hints’ on what to do later *cough*cellar door*cough*) CG-heavy ‘fantastical’ elements (like the chest worms from Darko), and even Donnie’s Dad is in it! I love that guy!
The actors, for their part, do a fine job. Diaz actually maintains a convincing Virginian accent throughout, and while her character motivations were rather inconsistent, this would be more of a scripting issue than an acting one. I felt that with the odd and messy script they were working with, the actors all did the best they could. Langella was convinving enough as the mysterious Arlington Steward, but I felt he was kind of phoning it in. This type of role seemed to come naturally to him and there was nothing really extraordinary about it. Marsden, too, was playing the handsome everyman as he usually does, and had a couple moments of illumination which happened too few and far between.
So what happened here? I think the problem with the first half of the film was that the characters accepted the whole box/button/deal too quickly. I would have liked to see more struggle between whether the button was REAL or not, before the discussion about whether they SHOULD push the button came up. Marsden starts out joking about it and telling her to push it, then suddenly becomes fearful of the consequences if they did push it (asking if she ‘really knew him,’ a nod to the original ending of the short story, where the husband is the one killed when the button was pressed. Twilight Zone changed the ending much to Matheson’s chagrin). The discussions about the box and the button were so matter-of-factly and there just didn’t seem to be any stakes to it. I wanted to see some anguish, damnit.
The other big problem was delving into the background of Langella’s character. The mystery around this character was great, and it was really unnecessary to try and tell us who is is and where he came from. There’s all these ‘clues’ throughout the movie that end up feeling like we’re getting beat over the head with a MARS BAR, pardon the pun. While not quite as blatant as the most recent Indiana Jones film, it was still pretty clear what they were trying to say and suddenly it was much less interesting.
I really hope Richard Kelly continues to make films, because I do believe he has talent. I think he got too wrapped up in his own cult following and tried to make movies that appealed to them, and not something that actually meant something to him. I’m a firm believer that if you make something YOU love, others will love it too.
Check out the short it was based on: Button, Button (1985) (yeah the acting is bad, but I’d still take it over this overblown mess)
Also, this is how the movie SHOULD have went: The Button (Funny or Die)