Monday, September 18, 2006

The Black Dahlia: A Review

Posted by codemorse

Watching "The Black Dahlia" is the cinematic equivalent of downing half a bottle of Jack Daniels, then chasing it with a quart of old, warm milk.

Rarely have I seen a film that fills itself up with promise, only to consciously deflate and castrate itself by the time the credits roll. If the experience weren't almost-agonizing to sit through, I'd recommend it as an exercise in the fickle nature of film.

"Dahlia" begins strongly, smartly, and engagingly - tracing the noirish friendship between two detectives in 1940's LA. It ends as a mess - a sodden, boring, exposition-laden tour of Hollywood idiocy and half-assedness.

There's no crime (pun entirely unintended) in having the central mystery of a film be a kind of McGuffin. The characters of Dwight and Lee are interesting enough to prop up that kind of film. The heightened "period" feeling of the film is fun to watch, in and of itself. But when your central mystery reveals itself to be an "Oscar-caliber" Scooby Doo episode, you've made a mistake.

That mistake is doubled when the various "twists" required to reach that Scooby Doo ending are packed into the final minutes of the film - in long and largely-incomphrehensible chunks of exposition that routinely and obscenely violate the "Show, don't tell" principle of movie-making.

Josh Hartnett is fine when he's required to be stoic. He's literally laughable when required to be passionate. Scarlett Johanssen continues to show that she's phenomenally attractive and marginally talented. And Aaron Eckhart's character belongs in a better, more interesting film.

In fact, the film's largest mistake is in its casting of its two leads. Hartnett cannot sell Noir despair or anger. He comes across as a petulent teenager who's had his bike taken away. Had the filmmakers simply switched their roles the film might have survived it's stupidly-concieved second half through the sheer force of Eckhart's charisma. As it is, the second that the older (better) actor leaves the screen - which he does, inexplicably and ridiculously, about half-way through the film - the entire enterprise begins to deflate on itself.

"The Black Dahlia" is packed with great actors. There are multiple "Hey! It's that guy!" moments. But all the acting-wattage in the world can't save a script that, faithful to the source or not, violates the First Commandment of studio filmmaking: Thou Shalt Be Entertaining.


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