You know a film's a dud when people laugh during the serious parts. And as Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia" labored on, that is just what the audience was compelled to do.
"What the heck is going on?" said a voice behind me.
"Am I supposed to understand this?" whispered another.
"Mmm...this popcorn's crunchy," murmured the old man three seats down. "Crunchy, crunchy, crunchy."
An almost cruel disappointment, the film imparts little upon its viewers, save the humungous swarm of questions that inevitably follows and a crushing sense of boredom from which not even the tastiest theater concessions can save you.
In the style of film noir past, the movie ventures into the backstreets of 1940s Hollywood life, where the champagne wishes and caviar dreams are a mere masquerade for the horrors that lie in its dark, malevolent underbelly. Money, murder, power and sex abound in this surreal reality, where showbiz politics reign supreme, and the hope of fame is considered spiritual sustenance.
Super-cops Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) find the corpse of 22-year-old aspiring actress Elizabeth "Betty" Short (Mia Kirshner) behind an old pimp house. The body is severed in two, her blood drained, organs removed and face mutilated. The "Black Dahlia" murder, as the press dubbed it in 1947, exploded into the L.A. scene, igniting scorching interest amongst the masses, who watched as investigators painstakingly tried to solve the mystery. And the mystery today remains. But the film itself provides a solution to this dark, mystifying case in a seedy, dull, hopelessly contrived ending that leaves audience members with that same sense of mystery, sans the interest.
Scarlett Johansson plays Lee's willowy girlfriend Kay, with whom he and Bucky share a sort of platonic threesome. Lee loves her. She loves Bucky. Bucky loves Lee. Together they are one big, happy family, though not by conventional standards.
Lee becomes obsessed with solving the Betty Short case, driving an ever-growing rift between him and Kay. All the while, Bucky gets frisky with wealthy bi-sexual socialite Madaleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), who holds secrets about Betty Short and her case.
Like every other weary audience member that processed out of the theater, I was at a loss for words. All I could muster up the strength to say was, "huh?"
On its face, this picture screams silver-screen success. Sprinkle in a couple of lesbians, some handsome, high-profile actors and a wee bit of peep-show porn and voila, you've got America's attention. But even with the ingredients for box-office triumph resting in De Palma's palms, he fails to cook up a coherent, gripping story for us to indulge our entertainment-hungry minds on.
The problem is not that the film is too serious for us to handle, it's that it takes itself more seriously than it actually is. In the end, "Dahlia" is nothing more than a fine mess of pretty faces and bad acting. After the first 20 minutes, I became so lost in my search for a point that frustration gave way to laziness and laziness gave way to a weary sense of ennui. I longed for my $8.50. And for some crunchy popcorn.
Far too many subplots cloud the story's focus, Short's murder, and what could have been a thought-provoking murder mystery becomes nothing but a garish bloodbath. Like Short's naked, fly-smothered corpse the plot is equally lifeless and lacking inner substance.
And the acting fairs no better. Hartnett makes like Humphrey Bogart and narrates the film as if the audience gives a damn what's going on. His icy cool demeanor and brooding good looks detract from the acting ability he harbors beneath.
Johansson spends the entire film hoping that if she strikes enough poses a la Grace Kelley, the audience won't notice that she hasn't a slight clue what her character is about.
Together, Johansson and Hartnett exude absolutely no chemistry, despite their off-screen romance. Case in point: the pair engages in a lurid scene of passionate table sex that involves ripping a perfectly good dinner spread, complete with candles and a roast turkey, off the table. "What a waste of good turkey," I thought. The scene was about as a hot as two turtles getting it on.
Swank is perhaps the most compelling character in the cast, donning glamorous old-Hollywood garb like a pro and using a deep, almost unrecognizable Lauren Bacall intonation. Though her character, too, lacks a real place in the plot, she can at least fake it like the Oscar winner she is.
But in all honesty the characters put more effort into lighting their myriad cigarettes than they do into their parts. And when Hollywood can't even do a decent film about itself, it's glaringly obvious how exceptionally shallow it really is.
De Palma's so-called genius gave us the likes of "Scarface" and "Carrie." But with nothing but cheap thrills and sumptuous cinematography to titillate us with, it is likely that his career will suffer a grisly demise.
Unlike the Dahlia's untimely end, however, at least his won't be mystery.