2006-09-22 / Columns
"The Black Dahlia"
You know you're in trouble when, three-quarters through a film, a narrative voice-over attempts to explain the plot it assumes you're too lost to follow. But the trouble with "The Black Dahlia" begins long before that-practically from scene one.
There's an early street brawl between cool cat zoot suiters and sailors, while smiling cops look on. The fake punches are coming right out of those cheesy old Saturday morning Westerns, and the set looks like it could ripple in the wind at any moment. You begin to realize that something is already awry.
This scattered, haphazard lump of a film attempts to shadow two L.A. cops (Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) attempting to solve Elizabeth Short's brutal 1947 murder. But there are simply too many dumb or inconsequential spun-off subplots tagging along, and every so often you ask yourself: hey, what about Elizabeth Short?
Director Brian De Palma seemingly juggles every directing style from Hitchcock to Fellini looking for some credible approach that never gels.
Call it kitchen sink noir. Everything's there, like it or not. The film reaches from crime thriller to love triangle to comedy to slasher flick, and the family Linscott could be right out of "Satyricon." There's even a smidgen of lesbian porn. Oh, why not?
A decade ago, Curtis Hanson took James Ellroy's novel "L.A. Confidential" and spun a brilliant yarn about death and deceit in postWorld War II Los Angeles. (He also brought Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey A-list status.)
Directing a film as complex in plot structure as "Dahlia," Hanson skillfully joined that story's diverse elements together by the film's end. "The Black Dahlia" leaves more unplaced puzzle pieces than a 6year-old late for a birthday party and renders its audience as dazed and confused as any film I've seen in years.
You know that feeling when you're watching a film that shouldn't be working but somehow it just magically does? Well, "The Black Dahlia" elicits the opposite feeling. Close-ups are a bit too close. Imposing shadows are a tad too ominous. Pregnant pauses are just too pregnant. Meaningful looks come across as downright campy. And chance encounters are far too frequent, too coincidental.
Most logic has long gone with the wind. In one supposedly significant moment, L.A. cop Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett) tenderly tells his partner's girl, Kay (Scarlett Johansson), that he can't betray his best friend's trust-and then begins groping for her body like a drunken schoolboy.
A wink and a smile I'd have understood, because few of the characters are sympathetic in this film, but everybody's playing their parts so damn seriously. Meanwhile, what happened to Elizabeth Short?
Oh, yes-one of the intrepid detectives actually solves the case, then decides not to tell anyone whodun-it. Poor Elizabeth, who's been maligned as a lesbian porn star, a bad actress and just a downright pitiful human being (although, frankly, the only sympathetic character around), is even denied her ultimate justice.
Somewhere near the middle of the film, Hilary Swank enters as Madeleine Linscott, daughter of a wealthy L.A. tycoon whose family is too weird even to be dysfunctional. They're just outright scary-a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" family kind of scary. But, because Kay's offscreen, Bucky falls for her too. And then what's he do? I just can't bring myself to tell you, although it's something I thought about doing to myself midway through this pretentious, dismal film. Looking for noir? "Hollywoodland" is still out there, and a far better effort.