To paraphrase FDR, nothing is scarier than the anticipation of being scared, and I spent the first 15 minutes of Panic Room (Columbia Pictures) in a happy state of dread. Newly divorced Meg (Jodie Foster) is getting a tour of a big, empty Manhattan townhouse formerly owned by a rich eccentric. The palette is a dank blue-green, the lighting washed-out. While Meg’s adolescent daughter (Kristen Stewart) Rollerblades over the echo-y hardwood floors, the realtor (Ann Magnuson) casually mentions that part of the rich guy’s fortune was never found. Then they arrive at the panic room, a hidden chamber built to withstand a “home invasion.” As Meg walks through the door, the music—low, growling strings—kicks in; the door slides shut with a metallic thunk; and Meg flinches—she’s claustrophobic. There’s something unnerving about exposition so monotonously straightforward (females alone, check; hidden money, check; panic room, check; claustrophobia, check): You can practically see the director, David Fincher, and the screenwriter, David Koepp, winding their massive, spring-loaded trap. Oh, baby, bring on the terror!
Sad to say, that trap snaps shut with a ping! that could barely dent a marshmallow. Panic Room is fluidly made, and it keeps the audience quiet and unpleasantly gripped. But the only surprise is the absence of surprise; that trap is in too-plain view. As if emulating Hitchcock in Rope (1948), Fincher gets a lot of mileage out of long, sinuous tracking shots that map out the space; and the break-in is a pyrotechnical masterpiece—the camera moving from jiggling front-door lock to jiggling back-door lock, from first floor to second floor to third-floor skylight. But Fincher and Koepp soften the dread: They give you the bad guys’ perspective too quickly. By the time Meg awakens and sees shadowy men on the video monitors, we’ve already learned who they are, what they’re after, and which of them is likely to have an ennobling change of heart. The suspense isn’t heightened by the fact that if Meg and her daughter don’t make it to the panic room, there’s no movie.
The poster of Panic Room—blond Foster in bed, eyes open, a shadowy figure of a black man in the doorway behind her—summons up all sorts of racist fears; so you’ll be relieved to know that (and this is, I suppose, a spoiler, although it’s spoiled by the movie itself in the first half-hour) Forest Whitaker plays the most soulful character in the film. As a panic room designer now desperate for money to fight a custody battle, Whitaker’s eyes and hangdog manner signal he couldn’t hurt anyone, he’s a softie. (The badder guys, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam—who wears a mask and pretends his name is “Raoul”—are white and one-dimensional.) It’s Whitaker’s movie; he’s as eloquent in his helplessness as Charles Laughton’s hunchback on the wheel. But the film would have been so much more unnerving if his character had found a reason (greed, jealousy, fear of apprehension, wounded pride) to hate Meg and her daughter instead of empathizing at every turn.
Koepp’s screenplays are proudly mechanical—he gets hired for his levers and cogs and pulleys. As the writer of Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996), and Snake Eyes (1998), he has clearly been influenced by former math-major Brian De Palma, whose thrillers often seem as if they’re built around spatial-temporal theorems. Like those films, Panic Room boils down to a series of logistical challenges: First put the mother and daughter in the panic room and the bad guys with the gun on the outside; then put the mother and the gun on the outside and the bad guys and the young girl inside; then throw in some variables like cops and the estranged dad. It’s all very neat, very smartly structured, but within that structure it’s paint-by-numbers: the claustrophobia of the mom, the diabetes of the girl, the conscience of the less-bad bad guy. Every little detail has a payoff; every little payoff leaves you yawning.
Fincher doesn’t make it any fresher: He’s not interested in people, he’s interested in syntax, in finding new and exciting cinematic metaphors. Sonsofbitches usually make the best thrillers, and Fincher certainly has the aggression, the coldness, the anger to turn you inside-out with anxiety, along with spatial gifts that anyone (outside De Palma) would envy. But the dazzling Fight Club (1999) was supposed to turn, finally, on the issue of one man’s divided psyche—and when it did the audience felt let down, betrayed. The Game (1997) was meant to be a morality play about a closed-down human being finally opening himself up to the chaos of life—and when he did the audience couldn’t have cared less. Fincher’s only real success has been the hateful Se7en (1995), a masterpiece of grisly, chamber-of-horrors nihilism in which the psycho has the last and overriding laugh. In Panic Room, he has made a movie about vulnerability from the outside—it’s no wonder it leaves with a shrug. He’s an amazing director who might never have the empathy to be a good one.
With all the bad advance word on Death to Smoochy (Warner Bros.), I was really looking forward to it—anything that pisses people off so much has to have something going for it, right? Er … I think even John Waters would be offended by this one: Not by the idea that kiddie-show hosts can be greedy and vicious, but by the contempt for everyone, even characters with heart. The director, Danny DeVito, invests every scene with a cackling venality. With his cocked angles (think the Batman TV program) and in-your-face staging, he turns actors like Robin Williams, Edward Norton, and Catherine Keener into nothing less horrific than giant Danny DeVitos. It’s grimly appropriate that Death to Smoochy—the nadir of black-comic farce—opens the day we mourn the passing of Billy Wilder.