January! A month in which the savvy moviegoer, faced with the barren landscape of what is inevitably the very worst movie month in the calendar year, particularly when it comes to big-studio releases, can catch up on some of last year's best films. Have you seen Sideways yet? How about Million Dollar Baby? Neither title promises transcendence, but both provide an evening of excellent entertainment. Certainly both are far superior to what generally slinks into theaters this unhappy month, including White Noise, a laugh-laced cheap thrill that has nothing to do with the superb Don DeLillo novel of the same title.
No, this White Noise belongs to Geoffrey Sax, whose studio notes with hope that this would-be auteur "comes from a long and venerable line of BBC-trained directors," including Mike Newell and Danny Boyle. It is a long and venerable line that on the evidence of his feature filmmaking debut, Sax may bring to an unintended end.
Though to be fair about a movie that doesn't deserve such generosity, the problems with this would-be thriller are rooted more in the silly, threadbare plot than in Sax's serviceable direction. He has the same fondness for sleek surfaces -- the glisten of wet asphalt, the sheen of silvery appliances -- shared by other British directors (Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, ad nauseam), but he can't take full blame for the story's gaping holes and paranormal hooey.
It's impossible to say exactly who takes the brunt of the blame here, although the screenwriting credit belongs to Niall Johnson, another British television veteran. Johnson apparently wrote White Noise in 2002, several years after the Japanese horror movie Ringu became a monster hit and helped trigger the recent fad for Asian horror.
Directed by: Geoffrey Sax
Starring: Michael Keaton (Jonathan Rivers), Chandra West (Anna Rivers),
Deborah Kara Unger (Sarah Tate), Ian McNeice (Raymond Price), Sarah Strange (Jane) and Nicholas Elia (Mike Rivers)
Running time: 101 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
As in various Japanese and Korean titles, White Noise hinges on the premise that there are ghosts in the machine anxious to reach out and touch us, sometimes for good and generally for bad. Often, the person on this side of the death divide is a spunky woman or a high school girl in a miniskirt and knee socks, but here the hero reaching across time, space and genre is played by none other than Michael Keaton.
Always a welcome screen presence, Keaton has appeared in lamentably few movies in recent years and certainly in nothing memorable. Last year, he modestly enlivened the otherwise execrable First Daughter and, in a peculiar twist, appears in a feature written by Mr. DeLillo, Game 6, slated to have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.
Equally adept at comedy and drama, Keaton brings a coiled intensity to all his performances, but the last time he really registered on the big screen was with his wonderfully entertaining appearances as the Elmore Leonard character, Ray Nicolette, first in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown and then Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight. I doubt that I was the only Keaton fan who hoped that someone would give the actor and Ray Nicolette a movie of their own.
Fast-forward to White Noise, a film worthy neither of Keaton's talents nor even a desperate horror fan's attention. A nominal thriller, the story involves Jonathan Rivers, a gullible architect who stumbles into an underworld where the living commune with the dead via static-filled phones, computers and television sets.
When not opening squeaky doors or driving down dark streets, Jonathan spends a great deal of time staring intensely into screens, fiddling with knobs and listening to the sizzle and spit of bad connections, with us staring and listening alongside him. The actress Deborah Kara Unger, who plays spooky without visible effort, pops up briefly, as does the estimable character actor Ian McNeice. In two of his few scenes, McNeice politely excuses himself and beats a hasty retreat. Can you blame him? White Noise is rated PG-13 (Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13). Actually, most of this is inappropriate for anyone of any age with half a brain.