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Monday, January 22, 2001

SUNDANCE: John Robie Looks At DONNIE DARKO!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

Here's Robie's look at the first film we saw when we hit Park City. I think DONNIE DARKO is going to be one of those films that makes everyone have a different reaction. I'd be surprised to hear any sort of unanimous reaction out of people on something this odd. Speaking of odd, here's the man I'm trapped in a hotel room with... John Robie.

Packed up, drove out, got to Park City, and started making fun of everyone almost immediately. Actually got to Heber City, where weíre staying, first. Heber City is to Park City as Charlie Manson is to Charlie Rose. Thank you for the lovely accommodations, Mr. Knowles. The maid just came by to turn the room. I think she was a bear. Donnie Darko is one hell of a movie. One hell of a strange movie. One hell of a confusing movie. One hell of aÖwell hell, Iím not quite sure what in hell it is. On one hand itís a promising debut from a very young filmmaker. Promising isnít necessarily the same as good, mind you. On the other itís a confounding mess, an aspiring but ultimately infertile mix of ideas and dark shots and brooding characters and bunnies. Bunnies. That touch I like. Donnie Darko wouldíve made one hell of a great short story. As a film, and as a film in the hands of first time writer-director Richard Kelly, itís way more frustrating than fun.

Donnie sleepwalks. It must have been going on for a while now because his parents really donít worry about it anymore. They just figure that Donnie is Donnie, and if they only had a clue as to what Donnieís going through. Donnie sees a giant bunny in his dreams and sometimes his waking hours, calls it Frank, and one night Frank makes a sleepwalking Donnie follow him outside. Donnie wakes up on a golf course, and when he walks back home theyíre pulling a fallen jet engine out of his room. Crashed right through the roof, and if Donnie had been in that bed he wouldíve been killed. Thereís a whole lot more after that, and telling you about it would pretty much ruin a lot of the filmís charms. Lots of stuff about time travel, lots of stuff about Donnieís dissolution and redemption and more of Frank and damn there are some great ideas in this film. And damn I wish Kelly had fleshed them out.

The film feels like a first draft. Wonderful, weird ideas are abound, and the story is anchored by a strong performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie. Heís a lot more than brooding and dispassionate; thereís something broken about this kid, and much of the film is about Donnie trying to fix these tears that he has so much trouble putting a finger on. That Donnie isnít quite sure where all the strangeness and the compulsions to do strange things come from is one thing. That we as an audience donít quite understand all of those things is something different, and the film doesnít resolve the questions it poses. Of course things shouldnít have been tied up all nice and neat with a pretty little bow, and I almost always welcome conscious obliqueness on the part of the filmmaker because most filmmakers who have the balls to keep things weird and hazy have the talent to keep things weird and hazy. Kelly isnít quite there yet.

There are strong performances from other cast members too. Patrick Swayze pops up as a motivational speaker and plays off his established clean cut leading-man reputation well. Heís almost as good here as he was in Roadhouse. I shouldnít make jokes. Heís in town right now, heís got a dancerís body and heíll kick my ass. He is quite good in Darko, really, and so is Mary McDonnell as Donnieís mom. Maggie Gyllenhall plays Donnieís sister and sheís quite good. And, pardon me for being crass, sheís a piece of ass too. Jena Malone is excellent as Donnieís girlfriend. Same comment about Mrs. Gyllenhall applies to Mrs. Malone.

Good performances and style, though, canít stave off the long, dull stretches in the film. Itís supposed to be a brooding film, one that reveals itself slowly. Thatís fine, but there still has to be a beating heart. Thereíre a lot of great ideas here but there isnít a lot of soul, and thatís the one thing this film desperately needed. Iím fascinated that a first-time director would attempt a film like this, something that isnít the "Iím 23 and in a coffee house and my cat ate my poetry" film. Goofily witty yet slightly sad says the programÖah, indulgence thy name is heady young man with camera. But really, this isnít what youíd expect from a kid making his first feature film. Kellyís hands wield great promise. Promise is one thing, and the actual movie is another. Donnie Darko Ė as ambitious as it is Ė is, more than anything else, boring. It leaves you with a lot to chew on, but itís not living up there on the screen. But itís got the bunny, and for that I tip my hat. If I wore one, which I donít. And if it did, it sure as hell wouldnít be that cowboy shit all the hipster yuppies out here in Park City don.