Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Raven - As Sharp and Deep as a Sock Full of Soup

Edgar Allan Poe’s final week on earth is a mystery, even to this day. The Raven is a cinematic midrash of Poe’s last week alive. The sparkle of gorgeous costumes, the shine of lovely cinematography, and luminance of a strong supporting cast cannot escape the black hole that is John Cusack as Poe, the vacuum that is James McTeigue’s direction, and the suck that is Poe’s dialogue.

The much loved poet, but much loathed man Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) returned to Baltimore to win the hand of his love Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve). While he is in Baltimore, a killer uses his stories as a blueprint for killing and to get Poe’s attention. Poe’s personal connection to the killings goes far beyond that of inspiration to the killer.

There is something special about a movie that can transport you back in time and The Raven certainly does that. The sets scream late 1800’s America with hints of opulence and gobs of unfairness. The costumes are equally transportative. The costumes are like time machines for the audience wrapped around the actors.

The supporting cast saved The Raven from full cosmic collapse. Even though their dialogue was often unnatural and unconvincing, they delivered them with conviction. Kevin McNally is especially rewarding as Maddux, the editor of The Baltimore Patriot and verbal abuse victim of Poe. Luke Evans gave Detective Fields a professional passion that gave some depth and urgency to the movie. It was not their fault that writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare provided them with a script that even the most obtuse person would realize is incredibly awkward and unnatural.

Livingston and Shakespeare wrote Poe like a thirteen year old stoner attempting to be sardonic but incapable because they lack the intelligence, depth, insight, or experience to take apart the self esteem of anyone without a suicide plan. As a result, Poe is constantly coming across as a dullard trying to come across like a literary genius, not a literary genius speaking down to lesser minds. I am certain Livingston and Shakespeare were trying to make Poe a total douche bag, but they don’t have the vinegar to fill the bag.

John Cusack does not give the character any sting or sour either. Endearing douche-baggery is a challenge for any actor to pull off successfully and Cusack fails at both. Cusack’s performance was as sharp and deep as a sock full of soup. He cannot muster the insecurity that makes sarcasm necessary, the malice to make it effective, or the impatience that comes with genius. Instead of embodying what they writers attempted to convey, he perfectly embodied and exaggerated what the writers actually created; a junior high schooler’s characterization of a meanie-pants.

James McTeigue should have worked with Cusack, Livingston and Shakespeare on giving the main character some depth. He was too busy ordering eyeball, teeth, and earring shots from the camera operators to bother improving Poe. Alice Eve’s eyes, the actor who plays the killer’s teeth and eyes all deserve their own credits. There must be fifteen minutes of slobbery teeth, and gushy eyeballs on screen.

About five minutes into the film, the man sitting next to me fell asleep and started snoring. We rode the elevator out of the theater together and he offered that he enjoyed the movie. Had sleep been part of my The Raven experience, I may have enjoyed it as well.

A pretty costume coating cannot change an overwhelming truth; The Raven is a masterful manifestation of mediocrity.

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