While driving on a moonlit canyon road Los Angelenos Ellie (Christina Ricci) and her teenage brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg) are attacked by some kind of giant wolf. They escape with their lives but are somehow altered by the accident. Boy are they ever. The career-driven Ellie and scrawny Jimmy suddenly find themselves with super strength and dexterity an undeniable sexual allure to those around them and heighten senses. They can smell human blood--everywhere. Uh oh. Think it's time to get out the sterling silver and melt them down into bullets. Of course Ellie and Jimmy can't deny the changes happening to them and soon find out that their werewolf encounter wasn't necessarily all that random. Still they aren't too keen on feeling the effects as their bodies painfully morph into flesh-ripping werewolves. They decide they have to solve the mystery and break the curse before it completely consumes them. Oh c'mon what's a little curse among friends?
Just like the Scream series Cursed is at least bolstered by a young hip cast even if most of them are wasted. Eisenberg (Roger Dodger) has the most fun as the geeky teenager who sort of likes his newfound powers. With his hair all mussed up and sexy Jimmy goes from a nobody in high school and to a hot-ticket item. Apparently if you didn't know this the whole burgeoning werewolf-sexual-attraction thing revolves around changing your hairstyle. While Ellie lets hers down Ricci is unfortunately a bit stiff as the supposedly tempting soon-to-be she-wolf. It's as if the actress knows how weak the script is. Joshua Jackson (so charismatic as Pacey from TV's Dawson's Creek) too seems to be going through the motions as Ellie's mysterious new boyfriend with a deep secret (clue: his hair is perfect). Judy Greer (13 Going on 30) however nearly steals the show chewing up the scenery--literally and figuratively--as a snide public relations agent with a mean jealous streak.
Movies about werewolves on a whole are pretty damn cool. It's all about how the person gets "infected" and slowly transforms from human to werewolf. Of course there's the original classic The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. and then the contemporary ones including An American Werewolf in London and The Howling (we don't count the tepid Wolf). Even Underworld's look at the ongoing feud between werewolves and vampires is at the very least an original idea. So one would think an updated werewolf story would be right up the alley of horror master Wes Craven and his Scream partner Kevin Williamson. It's not. Cursed's main problem is the jejune and derivative script. Wannabe hipster Williamson who also created the terminally chic Dawson's Creek tries to infuse the film with his usual twisty aren't-I-great-at-writing-cool-teen-speak? style. But this time around it only falls flat. Craven makes up for it a little with well-placed scare tactics and slick special effects but Cursed can't quite measure up to its werewolf predecessors.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.