FILM REVIEW: DONNIE DARKO
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"Donnie Darko," like "Harvey," is about an outsider hero with a strange companion: a 6-foot-tall invisible rabbit. But it's no whimsical, soused fairy tale. Twenty-six-year-old writer-director Richard Kelly describes his first feature as " 'Catcher in the Rye,' retold by Philip K. Dick," which tells you that Kelly has grandiose ambitions. "Catcher in the Rye" was the most influential teen novel of its era, Dick one the most admired and daring cult science-fiction authors.
"Donnie Darko," unfortunately, is just another self-absorbed teen chronicle, with the added twist of a little time travel and a surprise ending. It's certainly better than the average teen-in-the-suburbs movie, but despite some clever ideas and an extremely good cast, not that much better. And it's not that much more daring either, though Kelly uses his suburban setting and time, 1988, to take some welcome potshots at the materialistic, anti-intellectual culture of the '80s.
The movie is about 28 weird days in Donnie's life during the presidential campaign of 1988. At the end of the 28 days, we're informed, something dire will happen, possibly the end of the world. That seems distinctly possible, though not because of the election. In our first sight of Donnie (played by Jake Gyllenhaal of "October Sky"), we get hints of approaching apocalypse; he's lying curled up and apparently asleep in the middle of a tree-lined road.
Though he wakes up and bicycles home, none the worse for wear, it's not surprising to learn that he has emotional problems at home, troubles with his Dukakis-hating dad (Holmes Osborne), an intense animosity toward local right-wing self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) and, in addition to his chats with his bunny buddy, regular visits with a comely psychiatrist (played by "The Graduate's" Katharine Ross, in an Anne Bancroft mode). On the plus side, Donnie has a sympathetic mom (Mary McDonnell), a dynamite teacher (executive producer Drew Barrymore, the film's angel) and, eventually, a smart girlfriend named Gretchen (Jena Malone, in her second girlfriend role this week).
Donnie seems both blessed and cursed. Early on, part of a jet plane crashes into the roof of his bedroom but misses him, enabling him to keep on cavorting with all his bizarre or loutish suburban neighbors and gabbing with rabbit friend Frank. (Frank, possibly a horror-Stephen King fan like Donnie's mom, wears a mask that seems borrowed from "Eyes Wide Shut," if there had been a cartoon version of it, and at one point follows Donnie and Gretchen into a screening of "Evil Dead 2.") Meanwhile, Donnie keeps counting off the dates on his calendar until his 28-day deadline is up, and the movie keeps informing us, via inter-titles, that time is definitely passing.
What does all this mean? Were the '80s that shallow? (Yes, they were.) Have the spirits of J.D. Salinger and Philip K. Dick really morphed and joined forces in a parallel universe? Actually, the movie struck me more as a clumsy fusion of "The Twilight Zone" and "The Ice Storm" (counting "Life as a House," that makes two "Ice Storm"-reminiscent movies, both co-starring Jena Malone, in one week) with a surprise ending that isn't much of a surprise and isn't very satisfying.
Gifted young moviemakers like Kelly, who shows a lot of imagination and promise, have to be wary of these self-pitying chronicles of young outsiders in worlds that don't appreciate or understand them. These script notions are not as revelatory, nor as therapeutic, as they first seem. Besides, I think "Harvey" playwright Mary Chase has taken care of invisible-rabbit companions in movies for all time.
Directed and written by Richard Kelly; photographed by Steven Poster; edited by Eric Strand, Sam Bauer; production designed by Alexander Hammond; music by Michael Andrews; produced by Sean McKittrick. Nancy Juvonen. A Gaylord Films release; opens Friday, Oct. 26. Running time: 2:02. MPAA rating: R (language, some drug use and violence).
Donnie Darko Jake Gyllenhaal
Gretchen Ross Jena Malone
Karen Pomeroy Drew Barrymore
Rose Darko Mary McDonnell
Dr. Lilian Thurman Katharine Ross
Jim Cunningham Patrick Swayze