In a recent essay in The New Yorker, film critic David Denby talked about movies that "jump backward and forward in a scrambling of time frames that can leave the viewer experiencing reactions before actions, dénouements before climaxes, disillusion before ecstasy." Jumping from point A in the story to point F and back to point C was once a fancy avant-garde device that left multiplex viewers scratching their heads. Now, Denby claims, non-linear filmmaking has gone mainstream.
Exhibit A could be Sandra Bullock's new vehicle, Premonition. If you dumbed down the wacky time scheme of Memento and put it in a hopper with Groundhog Day, Twelve Monkeys and What Lies Beneath, you might get something like this.
The movie opens with a handsome husband surprising his lovely wife with the perfect family home. (One wonders why she doesn't resent being left out of the loop on this major purchase.) Then it jumps forward about 10 years: Wife Linda (Bullock) is raising the couple's two daughters in the shabby-chic house when a highway patrolman arrives with sad news. Husband Jim (Julian McMahon) has been killed by a jackknifing semi. Bullock drinks, cries, goes to sleep, and wakes to find Jim alive again. Was it all a dream, or - da-dum! - a premonition?
After experiencing a few more awakenings that play fast and loose with linear time, Linda starts to figure out a pattern. If she can understand what's happening to her and dodge the doctor who wants to treat it all with lithium, maybe she can save her husband. The problem is, she's not sure she wants to.
That's the only original concept in Premonition - but it's not a bad one. Bullock's time travel is really a speeded-up version of the classic grieving process, in which shock and denial are gradually replaced by acceptance. At first, Linda welcomes Jim's reappearance. But the more she sees of him - and learns about him - post mortem, the more she wonders if she's better off letting fate take its course.
If you want to see a movie that does justice to this theme, rent 1991's Truly Madly Deeply. That film had Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson as a couple so real, you felt you knew them. The problem with Premonition as a drama about marriage is that its weak script and star-centric direction give it essentially one character.
Bullock is convincing in her despair and frazzled ambivalence - you can almost forgive her for waking each morning with perfectly applied eyeliner. But she doesn't play off anyone else. Tight close-ups on her face and herky-jerky POV-cam scenes - where we can't tell what's going on because Linda can't - increase the sense of claustrophobia.
McMahon, who plays the roguish plastic surgeon on TV's "Nip/Tuck," can do nuance, but his character here is underwritten. Jim and Linda never have a believable relationship, and their kids . . . well, they look adorable and play hopscotch. The film's view of family life is as plastic as that idyllic first scene.
When you take away that emotional dimension, all that's left is the time-hopping conundrum, which most viewers will grasp long before Linda does. The movie fudges its ending, too - it can't decide whether to leave us in a fog of New Age serendipity, à la M. Night Shyamalan, or with a cold touch of cosmic irony. Maybe the multiplexes aren't safe for real weirdness yet.