(2008) Mystery (Magnolia) Elijah Wood, John Hurt, Leonor Watling, Julie Cox, Jim Carter, Alex Cox, Burn Gorman, Dominique Pinon, Anna Massey, Danny Sapani, Alan David, Tim Wallers, James Weber Brown, Ian East, Charlotte Asprey. Directed by Alex de la Iglesia
As a species, we seem compelled to look for meaning in everything, which to a certain extent allows us to discover meaning in our own lives. There are those that believe that the universe is ordered and that everything can be explained and categorized, while there are those who believe that the universe is chaos and that nothing can really be explained thoroughly. Both are probably wrong.
Martin (Wood) is looking to conclude his brilliant academic career at Oxford. He’s an American who has known nothing but success as a student and is looking to get his doctorate at Oxford under the tutelage of Professor Arthur Seldom (Hurt), one of the greatest mathematic minds alive and quite the philosopher to boot.
Seldom reacts to Martin initially as Picasso might have reacted to a kid with a crayon who claims he can create art just as good. However, when the two men simultaneously discover the body of Martin’s landlord, Mrs. Eagleton (Massey) brutally murdered (she also happens to be a close friend of Seldom’s) the game is afoot for the two academics who are determined to solve the heinous crime.
However, they are too late to prevent a second murder. Now the race is to discover who the next victim will be. Both men will use the fullest disciplines of their minds while trying to come to terms with the woman who comes between them; Lorna (Watling), Seldom’s ex-lover and Martin’s current lady friend. Will their investigation put her in peril – not to mention themselves?
Alex de la Iglesia is not a name well known in the United States which is sad because he should be. In his native Spain he is well-regarded and among the critical cognoscenti here in the States he is also respected. However to all but the most discerning of film fans he is largely unknown. Even the usually hip Magnolia gave this only a token release here in the States and quietly gave it the bum rush to Blu-Ray.
There is actually good reason for it; this is one of de la Iglesia’s weaker efforts. Part of the problem is that you have a very cerebral film that examines the meaning behind numbers, the philosophical debate between order and chaos mentioned above, among other nuances of academia. However, there is also a murder mystery with some fairly graphic murder scenes, a lot of sexuality and copious amounts of nudity. These things don’t generally appeal to the same audience, which makes for some schizophrenic marketing opportunities that I don’t blame Magnolia for passing on.
Still, there are some compelling reasons to see this. John Hurt is an actor who doesn’t always get his due. When he’s at the top of his game, there are few actors alive today who can match him and he’s at the top of his game here. I suspect had this performance been done for a major, there would have at least been some Oscar talk for it.
Wood is an actor who is best known for his work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and sometimes gets lumped in as a genre actor because of it, which he really isn’t. Yeah, he did Sin City but he tends to gravitate towards roles like these and he actually is as good as anyone at playing smart – that is, playing someone who is extremely intelligent. It’s a lot harder than you would think; most people who try to play smart usually come off as smug and while Wood does occasionally hit that border he never actually never crosses it.
Watling, a Spanish actress who has made occasional forays into American films (Talk To Her being her best-known) is a mysterious beauty who lights up the screen whenever she’s on it – even when dimly lit. She has to play someone who is having love affairs with men much older and much younger than her, and pulls it off nicely. She is really at the crux of the story in many ways, even though the story is ostensibly about Martin and Arthur.
The pacing here is pretty relaxed as you might guess. This isn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller by any means, although it might have worked better had it have been. It just seems a bit schizophrenic the way it’s set up, which in normal cases I think I would have appreciated the juxtaposition between the cerebral and the visceral but here it doesn’t work as well as I might have hoped.
WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted by Hurt and Wood. Watling is enticingly beautiful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be too cerebral for some. Moves too slowly for the viscera to work effectively.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some fairly gruesome images, a bit of nudity as well as implied sexuality, and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hurt as Arthur Seldom dresses as Guy Fawkes for a Guy Fawkes celebration; he also wore a Guy Fawkes mask in V for Vendetta.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on recording the music for the film at the legendary Abbey Road studios (where the Beatles recorded).
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4,803 on an unreported production budget. The movie tanked at the box office.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Name of the Rose
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Kill the Irishman