By Brian Rentschler
Short version: This movie had some impressive imagery at times, but overall it was downright awful.
Okay, now that my inner child has said what it wanted to say, let me start out by talking about the director of this cinematic train wreck, Tarsem Singh. According to IMDB, he hasn’t had much of a feature film career since directing The Cell, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen it. I’m sure Singh did a great job with the commercials and music videos that defined his early career, but as a feature film director, he created a real mess. I must admit, the imagery in The Cell is very impressive, but that’s only one of many components required for a movie to truly hit it out of the park. I have always found Jennifer Lopez underwhelming as an actress, but here she seems nearly comatose. Vince Vaughn did such a great job in Swingers, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this movie. He’s positively slumming it here. I was absolutely floored when I read that Roger Ebert thought this was one of the best movies of 2000. Did he see another movie called The Cell that I didn’t hear about?
Sometimes I’m not sure what to think of Jennifer Lopez’s career. She gained recognition as a Fly Girl on In Living Color, then she became a bona fide star after her breakout performance in Selena, making her the first Latina actress to earn $1 million for a movie role. With luck and talent squarely on her side, what movies did she choose to follow up her star-making performance? Of course, she chose two stinkbombs — Anaconda and U-Turn. Surprisingly, I have found the majority of her movie choices to be anywhere from mediocre to downright awful. For every Out of Sight or An Unfinished Life, there is a Gigli or The Cell to balance it out. So it’s not surprising that in most of her movies, she strikes me as the wrong casting choice for that role. That was certainly true of The Cell. But before I start getting all the hate mail and death threats from people who think I’m wrongly hating on their revered J-Lo ™, I should add that there are quite a few talented actors who are completely wasted in this movie.
Most of the movie happens in a research facility whose research is funded entirely by the rich parents of the facility’s only patient, a comatose boy. The facility has some sort of equipment that allows Catherine Deane (played by Jennifer Lopez) to literally go inside people’s heads. Interestingly, once she’s inside their heads, everything looks like it belongs in a Nine Inch Nails video. Naturally, Catherine has two sidekicks (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Baker) who work behind the scenes and constantly warn her to avoid going too far inside the boy’s head, whatever that means. (The movie must have been going too far inside my head, because I was getting a headache at that point.) Catherine has had limited success in her interactions with the comatose boy, but before you can say “Where’s the fast-forward button?” we find out that FBI Agent Peter Novak (played by Vince Vaughn) has a second patient for her.
Carl Stargher (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) is a serial killer. But Carl isn’t just your run-of-the-mill, garden variety serial killer. He has a sophisticated cell where he keeps his female victim. There is a water line into the cell that turns on for a short time every now and then. After about two days of this, the water stays on until the cell fills completely with water and drowns his victim. Although he’s not there at the time, he has several video cameras to record all the fun. After the victim is dead, he hoists himself above the dead body using a series of rings that are pierced into his back (!), starts playing back the tape and does some things that are rather unbecoming of a gentleman while he watches the tape. In other words, he is a seriously sick dude. It turns out that the FBI’s investigation has led them to suspect Stargher of committing the murders. They also learn that another woman has gone missing, and they suspect that Stargher has abducted her. Based on their knowledge of his methods, they know that the current victim has less than two days to live unless they can catch Stargher.
To the FBI’s surprise, Stargher is at home when they raid his place, but there are two problems. First, his current victim is not there. Second, Stargher has unexpectedly lapsed into a coma, so there’s no way for him to tell anyone where she is. That’s why Agent Novak contacts Catherine Deane — to see if she can get inside Stargher’s head and see if he can tell her where the FBI can find the current victim before she drowns. She agrees, but needless to say, the inside of Stargher’s head is a messed-up place. As with most serial killers, he had a childhood that put the “fun” in “dysfunctional.” What’s even more incredible is that Deane actually starts to emphatize with Stargher, much to the dismay of her sidekicks, who are afraid that she will go too far inside his head. Seriously, once she goes inside his head, it’s like a big blur after that. I remember a cow getting sliced up, Catherine falling down some hole and a dude with horns. (Don’t worry, it won’t make sense after you watch it either.) Otherwise, I didn’t really know what the heck was going on, although the visuals were impressive. There are so many questions at this point in the story. Will Catherine save the day by doing her Vulcan mind meld with Stargher? Will she be able to enter Stargher’s mind without doing damage to her own mind? Will the FBI be able to save the current victim before she drowns? Will the audience care? As usual, I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that the final outcome forced me to wonder why it was so absolutely necessary to cast Jennifer Lopez in this movie (aside from getting people into theater seats, of course).
Okay, I’ve done plenty of J-Lo bashing; now we move on to Vincent D’Onofrio. Vincent, Vincent, Vincent… Et tu, Vincent? Ever since I first saw his performance as Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, he has been one of my favorite actors, but I would love to know what in the world possessed him to star in this crapfest. (On second thought, maybe I don’t want to know.) I suppose it could be argued that his role as Stargher was challenging for him and allowed him to stretch his abilities as an actor, but so would Hamlet. With such a long and distinguished career as his, couldn’t he have chosen something better than The Cell? And Vince Vaughn… you know, come to think of it, his career has a few similarities to Lopez’s career. He had a breakout performance in Swingers, then he followed it up with The Lost World. That was a smart move, but then his follow-up projects were Return to Paradise, Clay Pigeons and a mediocre remake of Psycho. Huh? Don’t get me wrong; Vince Vaughn is a talented actor, but you wouldn’t know it by watching The Cell. He might as well have phoned it in.
Bottom line, this movie suffered from an underwhelming script, a miscast lead actress and direction that could generously be described as weak and misguided. If you like impressive visuals without a compelling story to go along with them, grab a bag of popcorn and your favorite two-liter and enjoy. But if you demand an intelligent, coherent storyline along with strong acting performances and competent direction, The Cell is not the movie for you.