February 14, 2011 12:33pm EST
Brad Anderson’s new film The Vanishing on 7th St. asks you to fear the haunting abyss that is the darkness but the more terrifying void is its story. Or lack thereof. Seeing as how it’s billed as a mystery horror-thriller and this from the director of neo-noir classics like The Machinist and Transsiberian I expected at least a few minor scares; I should’ve known they’d come only from Hayden Christensen’s performance.
The film is set in Detroit and follows a handful of survivors (including John Leguizamo Thandie Newton Jacob Latimore and Christensen) of an inexplicable power outage that seems to have consumed the entire city’s population. They must put the pieces of this puzzling event together to understand what’s happening and figure out how they can stay alive with looming shadows closing in on them.
With a less competent director at the helm this movie would’ve been a total disaster. The script is terrible focusing on one-dimensional characters their back-stories and a bunch of crackpot theories that hint at explanations but never follow through (in its defense the film is meant to be inconclusive but that doesn’t make up for bad dialogue plot holes etc.) Luckily Anderson is in his element with ambiguous narratives and creates a startling atmosphere that is interesting to examine. It has an unpolished gritty texture that brings to mind similar low-budget horror flicks but is enhanced by startling sound effects and an unnerving score from relative newcomer Lucas Vidal. Still all style and no substance only goes so far and The Vanishing on 7th St. never hits the throttle.
Essentially a creature feature without the creature the film is best looked at as an apocalyptic survival tale. The problem is that there’s nothing adventurous or enthralling about it. The characters’ encounters with the shadows are repetitive and the effect gets old quickly. Furthermore half of the cast (I’ll let you guess who) is incapable of conveying fear and if they aren’t afraid then how are you the audience supposed to be? I tried analyzing the film from an existential standpoint as a few of the characters question the reason for this human extermination but I couldn’t find any genuine moments of meditation.
Without question the star player here is Anderson who proves that he can do his job even when other members of the creative team don’t. The fact that he was able to develop such a striking tone from a sub-par screenplay is a testament of his ability as a storyteller.
We meet the two very unlikely sisters while each are having sex. Rose Feller (Toni Collette) is a successful lawyer who is sleeping with her boss and thinking of ways it can improve her career. Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl and at her 10-year high school reunion--after trying to have a fling in a bathroom stall--she ends up puking instead. Inevitably Maggie gets kicked out of her dad and stepmother's house and winds up on the doorstep of her sister. The Feller girls were close once when they were young girls especially after their mentally unstable mother died. But now their grown-up personalities clash rather dramatically. And when Maggie seriously crosses the line by seducing Rose's new boyfriend the straw is broken. Forced out Maggie stumbles upon some birthday cards from a long-lost grandmother and decides to go hit her up for cash. Turns out Grandma Ella (Shirley MacLaine) lives in a senior citizen's community in Florida that gets its humor from Golden Girls re-runs. Maggie may ingratiate herself within this new environment but isn't any more redeemed by reconnecting with Ella. She still acts like a petulant child. But rather than throwing her out Ella along with the gang of old folk forces Maggie to take some responsibility.
Collette (The Sixth Sense) is fantastic as the frumpy pudgy Philadelphia lawyer who gives up everything so she can walk dogs and lead a simpler life. But she's done this many times before--and honestly is so much better than Muriel's Wedding. Diaz (my personal favorite Charlie's Angel) doesn't need to stretch too far to play a conniving ditz with a heart. This is her There's Something About Mary role albeit a tad more screwed-up with a sister and lost grandma. So that leaves MacLaine as the saving grace for any worthwhile acting in this movie. Despite the obvious shuffleboard clichés--and the occasional leers at Diaz by the old guys around the pool--when the old folk are around the film gets lively and tolerable believe it or not. MacLaine leads the way with the quips and barbs but in a more subtle way than we are used to from this usually eccentric actress. The supporting cast of cranky cronies have some great moments especially veteran actor Norman Lloyd as the blind professor who teaches Maggie a thing or two about manners trust and family.
If this were Nora Ephron directing that would have been one thing but coming from Curtis Hanson the Oscar-winner who gave us L.A. Confidential it just doesn't mesh. Hanson can do quirky (Wonder Boys) he can do adventure (The River Wild) he can do hard-hittin' rap stories (8 Mile) and he can even do scary (Hand That Rocks the Cradle) but why in the world would he attempt a saccharine-soaked female family story that threatens to be a Crimes of the Heart tear-jerker? Screenwriter Susannah Grant who adapted In Her Shoes from Jennifer Weiner's popular bestseller of the same name also wrote Erin Brockovich and 28 Days. She understands strong female characters but there's still a major layer of sugar coating that Hanson can't scrape off. He doesn't tone anything down from Grant's script--not the overly cute dogs nor the embarrassing bridal shower nor the expected moments of guilt-tripping between the ladies. Instead he plods through the paint-by-number script and wraps it all up nicely into a crowd-pleasing film that is ultimately forgettable.