Richard Matheson’s story “Button, Button” takes five minutes to read and has the cruel efficiency of a fable that sticks with you for a lifetime. Writer-director Richard Kelly’s adaptation, The Box, takes nearly two hours to watch. But by the end, all you’re likely to remember are a few scenes that have the non-sequitur quality of a dream.
Paste the final scenes of the film to its opening, and the result would be a passable short “Twilight Zone” episode. (“Button, Button” actually was adapted for “The Twilight Zone” in 1985.) The substantial padding in between is sometimes worth watching and sometimes not, but it never does anything to expand, enhance, clarify or deepen the basic fable. If anything, it robs it of what resonance it had.
The setup: In Richmond, Va., in 1976, a suburban household receives a mysterious parcel followed by a visit from a courteous gentleman named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), who appears to be missing half his face. Steward opens the parcel to reveal a box adorned with a single button, and explains to the wife, Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz), that if she presses the button, her family will receive a cash payment of $1 million. The catch: Someone unknown to her will die.
It’s worth noting that in the original story, published in 1970, Steward offered the Lewises just $50,000; in the 1985 “Twilight Zone,” he offered them $200,000. But then, in those earlier versions, they were small people with small aspirations. Norma’s fatal decision to press the button reflected her impatience with her husband, who didn’t make enough to support her, and her desire for a child.
Petty motivations, maybe, but understandable, especially in a recession. Despite setting his tale in another American downturn, Kelly has made the Lewises solid middle-class citizens who already have a child (Sam Oz Stone) and a roomy house equipped with fashionable Harvest Gold appliances. Husband Arthur (James Marsden) is a scientist at NASA, while Norma teaches at a tony private school. Early in the film, she learns her employers can no longer sponsor her son’s tuition — but that doesn’t seem like a hardship worth killing a stranger over.
Kelly doesn’t put much effort into giving the couple plausible motives, or even making them a plausible couple. As he showed in Donnie Darko, he’s obsessed with the archetypes of “Brady Bunch” American suburbia, and that’s what the Lewises remain: paper dolls in Ford-era outfits. (Diaz over-acts with a dodgy Southern accent and Marsden doesn’t even try, but it all amounts to the same thing.)
Then the weird shit starts happening — waiters with nosebleeds, unearthly lights roiling in swimming pools — and The Box evolves, or devolves, into one of those “X-Files” episodes full of ponderous dialogue, extraneous literary allusions and belabored analogies between aliens and God. (Or are the aliens God?)
Even in last year’s entertaining Southland Tales, with its plot involving monkeys, doppelgängers and the fourth dimension, Kelly seemed more like a filmmaker striving to be weird than a true visionary. Here, he piles on so many layers of weirdness the whole thing becomes risible. To the extent the story still has a moral, it’s as incoherent as Jigsaw’s preaching in the Saw movies.
But at its most wacked-out moments, The Box almost earns cult status. A scene in a library hints at where Kelly’s real talents lie. The strangers who follow Arthur and Norma through the stacks, moving in uncanny unison, aren’t remotely creepy, but they do suggest the chorus line in a tripped-out alien-abduction musical. Given that Southland Tales had memorable musical interludes, I think Kelly should pitch “Close Encounters meets Chicago” to studio execs, stat.