Keeping a Straight Face Is Half the Battle

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03/24/2009 12:00 PM |

In which Jesse Hassenger reviews Knowing, the hottest comedy of 2009, and manages to take it rather more seriously than your editor probably could have.

Critics have become such practiced hands at absorbing and dismissing apocalyptic thrillers and quasi-cryptic mysteries that it’s easy to see how Knowing would get tossed into the recycling bin. Alex Proyas’ film is stepped in hokum: an unearthed time capsule contains a string of numbers that MIT professor (and single dad!) Nicolas Cage reads to correspond with fifty years’ worth of large-scale disasters — and maybe a few more to come. Are these predictions actually warnings and, if so, who’s responsible for them?

In answering those questions, the movie gives little thought to faking the math and/or science; no one asks, for example, what death-toll cutoffs qualify a disaster for the numbers list, or even why an easily cracked code is considered the most expedient warning method. It’s a puzzle movie without much puzzling, and plenty of straight-faced portent delivered by a typically committed Cage. Overeager ironic Wicker Man remake fans must, at this point, be wagging their tongues as they fire up their torrents.

But the sincere silliness of Knowing is preferable to the kind of theme-park cynicism that informs so many ensemble-disaster movies. Rather than Michael Bay playing to the cheap seats, Knowing has Proyas, the visually elegant director of The Crow, Dark City, and, in less visionary mode, I, Robot. Proyas has a flair for otherworldly eeriness — his outdoor scenes have a Guillermo Del Toro volume of falling leaves — and doesn’t cut his effects sequences into oblivion: he films a plane crash from ground view in a single horrifying take, and throws subway trains off the rails with a mixture of Hitchcockian build-up and Spielbergian spectacle.

Despite these impressive runs of choreography, Proyas isn’t a virtuoso of headlong visual storytelling like Hitchcock or Spielberg or, for that matter, Alfonso Cuaron or Christopher Nolan. He works so heavily with striking images that a movie with one foot (or at least a few toes) in the quasi-real world doesn’t play fully to his strengths. In Dark City and The Crow, his worlds were, on some level, the story; for most of Knowing, the characters are situated in more conventional surroundings, and the movie twitches with the desire to break away.

As such, its human concerns feel perfunctory, even detached, without adapting this stance as an actual point of view. Cage always brings humanity to eccentric, obsessive, or goofy behavior, but as with a lot of his recent studio work, he’s more or less left to his own devices by underwritten supporting parts. Knowing is far from heartless — if anything, its resolute lack of hipness will make it an easy snark target — but Proyas doesn’t seem to be seeking the kind of thrills, emotional or visceral, that would make it a satisfying genre piece rather than an enjoyable, visually interesting curiosity. Six features into his career, he’s still struggling with his immense promise and how to use it.