Filmed over four years in 18 countries (he couldn't get permits for Mars?), Tarsem's The Fall is everything and nothing all at once. Every one of its virtues is inevitably linked to an insufferable problem.
Yes, Tarsem should be commended for shooting amidst Namibian sand dunes and Himalayan no-man's-lands, for finding unknown actors willing to complete his decade-long dream. His story—lifted not from Camus but from the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho —follows a lovelorn, hospitalized paraplegic (Lee Pace) bewitching a little girl (adorable Romanian newcomer Catinca Untaru) with an epic fantasy story. Pace characterizes himself as a heroic bandit and his romantic rival as a Darth Vader-like knight, whose minions grunt and whinny a lot. In exchange for more chapters, the girl does medical errands for Pace which, unbeknown to her, are assisting in his gradual suicide.
The setup promises a richer, darker fantasy than most, to match its narrator's grim reality. Tarsem gives us images of the bandit and his ragtag accomplices riding on elephants, of an Indian tribe screaming and contorting just to give them directions. A monkey is shot to death and butterflies float out of its heart. Yet all this activity is just a distraction from Tarsem's depressingly simplistic message of hope in the time of peril. The adventure scenes are as dull, charmless and free of surprise as Pace's hospital ward. Even with his "more is more" approach, Tarsem can't achieve in 18 countries what Peter Jackson accomplished in one.
Worse, the unknown actors are also, for the most part, non-actors. (The worst one, Leo Bill, is inexplicably cast as Charles Darwin and draped in a torso-long set of peacock feathers). An A-list action star may have balked at Tarsem's policies, but he'd surely have lent an air of bravado to the role of the bandit. Pace — whose hospital scenes were shot far in advance of the rest — is convincing as a bedridden mope, unbearably wooden as the bandit. His demonstration of bravery will provoke nothing but howls.
Finally, while Untaru is the film's greatest asset, she's simultaneously the impetus for its frequent lurching into incoherence. Speaking in broken English as both actress and character, Untaru is mesmerizingly natural, stuttering, beaming awkward, near-toothless grins when nothing funny happens, twisting her doughy frame about on impulse. But apparently Tarsem was so in love with his star that he tailored much of the film to her stream-of-consciousness ideas, editing and even shooting scenes based on her pre-adolescent responses to their initial content in the script.
This is cute and appropriate in a kindergarten art class, but disastrous in film. And so The Fall winds up embodying an entire day spent babysitting an entitled, ADD-ridden tyke: it's endlessly creating but not necessarily creative, overstuffed with ideas that detract from its potential brilliance, achingly stubborn about getting its way.