Friday, November 4, 2011

Time's Up

Sometimes a good hook is all a film really needs to capture its audience. When the majority of popular films out there are remakes or stories so derivative that they might as well be, anything that stands apart from the norm can, and more often than not will, excite and draw a real audience. That hook allows you to tell any story you wish, and if you do a good enough job, those people will turn to their friends afterward and tell them all about your movie, expanding your viewership at the next showing. That catchy, original idea is exactly the kind of film In Time aspires to be. When I first saw the trailer for this sci-fi thriller, it didn't matter that it starred two actors who don't do a lot for me (Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried). It didn't matter that the supporting cast sported a variety of not-quite-there names including Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Vincent Kartheiser and Johnny Galecki. It didn't matter that director Andrew Niccol's previous works interested me not one whit. What did matter was the concept; a society where time is currency and the rich live forever, while the poor constantly check their chronometers to see their last minutes ticking away. Sure it's an obvious analogy to the state of inequality in the world and especially the United States today, but that single element is what drove people to the theater this past weekend. All that was left was for the director to tell his story, and hope that it's good enough for repeat performances next time around.

The name's Salas. Will Salas. And I don't dance.
Will Salas (Timberlake) is a factory worker just trying to eke out a life in the ghettos of Dayton with his 50-year-old mother Rachel (Wilde). With his wages such that he is literally living a day at a time, Will finds himself faced with perhaps competing in illegal fights (think of them as arm wrestling matches to the death) to earn some time on the side. After he rescues 105-year-old socialite Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) from the wrong side of the tracks, Hamilton tells him that the system in place is there to keep the rich alive and force the little people into short lifespans, for purposes of population control. He also tells Will that he is tired of his empty existence and came to the ghetto because he wanted to die. After determining that Will would not "waste his time", Hamilton passes over a century of time to Will before killing himself. Now Will has enough time on his hands to mingle with the elite of New Greenwich, but Hamilton's death is tagged as suspicious by the Timekeepers, a police force led by Raymond Leon (Murphy). Leon launches a manhunt for Will, who eventually pairs up with a rich magnate's daughter (Seyfried) and the pair become a modern day (or would it be futuristic?) Robin Hood and Maid Marion, robbing Time Banks and redistributing all the time in the world to those who have none.

Silly concept, "stairs"...
While In Time certainly carries a strong message that likely appeals to the "99%", the story itself could have used a lot more work. The action is quick paced and natural, which is why it's so annoying that it takes so long to get to such a point where we are not overly-reliant on plot exposition and dialogue heavy with overtones just to get by. After a largely empty first act, the tale gets truly underway with the escaped couple doing everything they can to screw the man and eventually each other, though in different ways. Actually, the worst thing the film could have done was force a romance between Will and Seyfried's Sylvia, as the two actors have little in the way of chemistry to make such a coupling believable. It's a shame, as the things that Niccol does well as a director (action, a strong message) are almost ruined by his overemphasis on those strengths. The action is almost good to a fault, in which a few moments arise that are beyond his talent as a director and/or beyond the budget of the special effects department. And the message is so obvious that when the film's character's sit down and spell it out so that the audience without a shadow of a doubt "gets it", it's a simple yet exhaustive exercise in frustration to sit there and take it.

Hair has seen multiple technical advancements in the future
At least the silly dialogue and direction is delivered by something akin to a decent array of talent. Seyfried is the lone poor casting choice, as in my eyes she still hasn't done enough to prove that she deserves to be a leading lady. It's clear she has some talent, but so much of her dialogue is so thrown away and flat that you're not sure whether she's just raw or simply isn't trying. I certainly won't deny that she has the looks to be a star, but if she doesn't pick up the pace there are other pretty people would kill to be in her shoes. Timberlake meanwhile has a few dull moments but otherwise puts up one of the more impressive, stripped-down performances of his career. For once, as an actor he puts aside much of his natural charm and actually plays a role that is not a simply-adapted version of himself, and it works wonderfully. Cillian Murphy is as effective as his stone-faced demeanor can carry him, and considering the bluntness of his part that actually goes a long way. As a hard-nosed but honest cop, Murphy is one of the film's villains but not one you can hate, as he's just a working stiff doing his job to the best of his ability. There's almost something admirable about his character, and Murphy plays to that exceptionally well. More villainous but less featured are Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser as Sylvia's wealthy entrepreneur father who doesn't care about the poor people who suffer under the system and Alex Pettyfer as the leader of a gang who kill people by stealing what time their victims have for themselves.Kartheiser is effective, but the almost seems out of place among all the far more attractive folk around him, ruining my "pretty people with problems" argument before it could even take off. Pettyfer's turn as a bad guy seems like an inspired move considering how poorly his last two films (I Am Number Four and Beastly) have fared with audiences. More likely it's a coincidence, but Pettyfer manages to be charming and snooty all at the same time, and comes off as a natural leader for others to follow. I'd love to see him headline another motion picture, but perhaps he needs more of these solid supporting roles to gain a following before he tries again. Olivia Wilde is wasted in yet another movie, her brief appearance at the film's opening quickly forgotten as the story continues on with her in absentia.

Not a face you want to see at a fancy soiree
Eventually the film comes to an end that is somehow both satisfying and disappointing as once again the glorious message of inequality makes itself known and characters meet their cliched stops. As least the ending itself wasn't predictable, as just enough was juggled to leave the true ending of the heroes in doubt until the film's final moments. Still, closing scenes of triumph hearkened back to earlier scenes of defeat, and the whole thing stunk of bleak writer's cramp stunting what could have been a good film. In Time is a good hook and a great IDEA, but as a story it never grasps what it needs to be most effective, instead relying on its actors to dredge it from the mire like some cheap Jedi mind trick. It almost works, but this film is definitely one that works better in theory than in practice. I enjoyed myself, but I'm not sure I'll be recommending it to my friends, and you can bet there will be others who feel the same. A perfectly okay film that will make for a nice rental or streaming download, but not something that needs to be seen on the big screen.

The Date Night sequel nobody wanted...

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