‘Donnie Darko’ helmer is still thinking outside ‘The Box,’ but that’s not necessarily a good thing (Movie review)

See, this is what I meant in my “Paranormal Activity” review about how good actors can add a lot to a movie. Cameron Diaz is completely adorable in “The Box,” and she has a wonderfully loving rapport with James Marsden, who plays her husband. I have no doubt this duo could’ve made “Paranormal Activity” better.

If I were to hand pick an actress and actor who I never give much thought to, but toward whom I also have nothing against, it would probably be Diaz and Marsden. I never jumped on that Diaz-as-hottest-woman-alive bandwagon about 10 years ago, but I connected with her performance here as Norma, a teacher with a disfigured foot who is visited by a man missing half a face who presents her with a button which, when pressed, will cause someone to die and net Norma and Arthur a cool $1 million.

As you probably figured out from that plot description, “The Box” is directed by Richard Kelly, whose “Donnie Darko” I found watchable but too confusing to embrace, and based on a short story by Richard Matheson, whose work is the source material for many movies (“Stir of Echoes,” “What Dreams May Come,” “I Am Legend”) and whom a lot of folks discovered when Stephen King named him as a major influence several years ago.

For me, the most winning element of “The Box” is the 1970s setting. I love stuff set in the ’70s. I feel more affection for the characters simply because their houses have ugly wallpaper and they don’t live in 2009. It’s the time equivalent of that geographical emotional truth that the grass is always greener. Life was better before I was around, right? Everyone’s so vaguely depressed now, and we weren’t always that way, were we? Maybe, maybe not — Norma and Arthur both have employment issues that cause them to consider pressing the mysterious button — but the mid-1970s in entertainment is certainly appealing (see also the movie “Zodiac” and the TV show “Swingtown”).

I can’t say I was completely absorbed by “The Box.” While Kelly has strengths like creating a not-quite-a-horror-movie mood with rich visuals and deep string music — he is a flawed storyteller. There’s no valid reason for the middle third of this movie to be as hard to follow as it is. (For example, Arthur suddenly jumps from one story thread to another — or maybe just farther along the story — without any apparent reason. During this confusing patch, I saw two moviegoers leave, and they weren’t totally unjustified in doing so).

I felt the same way about “Darko” — the confusion seemed forced, not genuine, and not compelling. (Many people disagree, obviously. And “The Box” could theoretically find an audience with “Darko” disciples, but I actually think it’s too mainstream to have that kind of cult following.)

Another thing that kept me from loving the movie (I have to settle for distant admiration) is that if I were presented with the “$1 million in exchange for a stranger’s life” scenario, I would immediately say no. I could use the money, sure, but I have no doubt that living with the knowledge that you killed someone would be a horrible burden to bear. Plus, I’ve seen enough “be careful what you wish for” yarns to know how this sort of thing goes. (I will admit, though, that there’s a much more difficult “What would you do?” at the end of the movie.)

Still, the acting and general mood are strong enough that I almost want to recommend “The Box.” I gotta play it safe and say skip it, though, unless you have patience for weirdness or really like Cameron Diaz (because she really is very good here).

What did you think of the movie? Does anyone want to argue in favor of pressing the button?