Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl

The movie of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” might have worked – at all – if even one of its characters behaved in a remotely believable way, if director David Fincher showed an ounce of respect for his audience’s intelligence, or if he invested a single female character with a trace of likability or dimension. There have been worse, less watchable films this year, but perhaps no bigger disappointment.

Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne, Fincher’s stand-in for himself and all those poor befuddled men who just want to understand that crazy species called women. Nick even talks, in an early voice-over, about wishing he could open his wife Amy’s brain in half and see what she’s thinking. The movie plays out on two parallel tracks: the one in which Nick comes home to find Amy missing, and the one in which we watch highlights from their marriage, from the first meet-cute to its disintegration due to financial and fertility issues. About halfway in, Fincher adds a third track: the one in which we find out what’s really happened to Amy. 

Rosamund Pike plays Amy, and it’s a shame that this is the part that will finally put her on the map for most viewers. I didn’t buy Nick and Amy for one single solitary minute. Their initial courtship is both overstuffed with movieish dialogue and strangely hard to hear (a problem Fincher quickly rectifies). When Nick proposes to Amy, he does so before a group of reporters covering her parents’ book party (they used an idealized version of her for a popular series of “Amazing Amy” children’s books) and leads with a description of her private parts that is stunningly vulgar and inappropriate. Affleck and Pike have the sum total of zero chemistry together.

Nick calls his wife’s disappearance in to the police and is soon leading Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and her underling, Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), around his house, where Boney looks past the shattered glass coffee table and overturned chairs and notices the merest trace of blood high up on a kitchen wall. Dickens generates some goodwill with her straight-talking, common-sense detective, but this is a character we’ve seen dozens of times in television cop shows. She’s not dumb, but she thinks exactly how the criminal wants her to think at each point (she’s never a step ahead) and by the end (when she’s finally figured out the truth we’ve known for over an hour), she allows herself to be shushed by her gullible superiors.

Meanwhile, at a hastily called press conference at which Nick and Amy’s parents (Lisa Banes and David Clennon) stand with the police to solicit the public’s help in finding Amy, Nick’s lack of media savvy leads to the unfortunate occasion of his smiling for photographers beside a poster of his missing wife. Before you can say Scott Peterson, Nick’s become a national pariah, demonized nightly on the cable TV show of Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), who asks her audience, “What is with this guy’s pie-eating grin?” (Her closing credit crawl, though, looks strictly public-access.) When throngs of reporters descend on his house, Nick moves in with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), but the reprieve is only temporary.

Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) is Ellen Abbott’s frequent guest and sparring partner, a modern-day Johnnie Cochran with a $100,000 retainer. Though beset by financial problems (Amy had returned to her indebted parents most of the million-dollar trust fund they’d established from their book proceeds, and both she and Nick lost their writing jobs in the recession), Nick flies to New York to beg Bolt to take his case. No need: Bolt has already recognized the opportunity Nick presents, and assures him they’ll work out the money later.

Fincher evidently thinks the Abbott and Bolt characters are fresher than they are; we’ve seen the Nancy Grace types before (none more grotesque than their real-world inspiration), and Bolt’s supposedly media-savvy instructions are either self-evident or simply ignored by his client. Sela Ward makes a stronger impression in a small part as Sharon Schieber, a Barbara Walters type go-to interviewer with a shark-toothed smile. 

Fincher devotes much of the second half of the movie to the actual circumstances of Amy’s abduction, so I don’t think I’m out of line in revealing that she may play at least some part in her own disappearance. Though Amy resents Nick for making her move to North Carthage, Missouri when his mother’s breast cancer became terminal, it quickly becomes clear that Amy is more than aggrieved – she’s psychopathic. The character as written descends (with the subtlety of an amusement-park freefall) into horror and madness, and a bizarre sequence at the compound of a stalking ex-boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris, with Pike and Perry one of several misjudged casting choices) descends into camp before ending with blood spurting out of practically every orifice a man and a woman have got.

Amy Dunne is not, however, a brilliant psychopath, a Hannibal Lecter who will live forever in our movie memory. For all her meticulous planning, she allows herself to be outwitted by two petty thieves, relying on the kindness of a strange man to save her. (The thieves don’t take an extra second to examine her personal effects, one of several times in the movie when a moment’s worth of investigation would have blown the story wide open.) 

As Fincher’s stand-in (and, by extension, ours), Affleck holds all the cards. He figures out what’s actually happened way before everyone else, dragging Detective Boney in tow and playing Ward’s Schieber like an instrument. I like Affleck so much as both a screen presence and a director (“The Town,” the deserving Oscar winner “Argo”) that I wish he had brought more complexity to this intriguing part, allowed us to see intelligence in Nick Dunne rather than Fincher’s stacking the deck on his behalf. Not one but two scenes in which Nick becomes suddenly violent toward Amy ring false. Affleck also doesn’t come close to selling the non-ending ending, a howler of a mystery of motivation.

Among other performers, Banes, as Amy’s mother, is from the word go a caricature of New York snobbery and lifelong exploitation of her daughter; Coon, as Nick’s sister, calls Nick out on his affair with a young former student but would basically do anything for him and has no known life outside of the case. I’ll always love Fugit for his nonpareil portrayal of Cameron Crowe’s alter ego William Miller in the perfect “Almost Famous”; here, he brings amiability and plain-speaking Midwestern decency to Gilpin.

I can see how Flynn’s book, with its back-and-forth between Amy’s disappearance and her earlier life with Nick, could be a page-turner. On the screen, it produces the opposite effect: the wholesale removal of even a modicum of suspense. My friend boiled over as the people behind us laughed during scene after scene, but in a way I didn’t blame them; the movie’s strange stylization and wild mood swings produce a discomfort (not the interesting kind of discomfort) that manifests itself in nervous laughter.

I have greatly admired Fincher’s work in the past. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was my choice among the Best Picture nominees of 2008, and I still consider his “Zodiac” one of the under-seen gems of the 21st century. I can only relate my experience of a movie, and I felt from him here fear, contempt and bone-deep distrust of women.

“Gone Girl” is a bloody, awful mess.

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