Friday, April 01, 2011

'Sucker Punch' is a big, audacious mess

The late film critic Gene Siskel use to ask himself this question as a gauge of a film's quality: “Is the movie that I am watching as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?” Zack Synder's “Sucker Punch,” in spite of its ambition and audacity, doesn't pass this test.

Set in the 1960s, “Sucker Punch” centers on a girl, nicknamed Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who after her mother's death is framed by her stepfather for her sister's murder. There is also an attempted rape in there, too. Baby Doll is sent to a mental institution and scheduled to be lobotomized in five days. All this is within in the first 10 minutes. Welcome to Zack Synder's idea of a PG-13 movie.

This is director and co-writer Synder's first film that is not an adaptation of previous source material following good, even occasionally great, work on “300,” “Watchmen” and the remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” On all those films, Synder had strong base material at the core of his films, but here he starts with an interesting, but unfocused idea that is muddled in the execution.

The film attempts to explore the idea of escapism by having the characters not just enter a fantasy, but a fantasy within a fantasy. It is a needlessly convoluted plot device that is suppose to add depth, but merely undermines the storytelling.

At the institution, Baby Doll quickly bonds with her fellow ladies in the “theater,” the room in which the girls receive music therapy with their doctor (Carla Gugino). This sets up the first fantasy world, a sort of brothel/strip club, which makes you wonder whose fantasy this is: the character's or the director's.

Whenever Baby Doll closes her eyes while dancing, we enter a second fantasy realm in which all the girls become butt-kicking super humans who battle everything from giant samurai to zombie nazis to robots. These fights correspond to missions in reality to collect items to make an escape.

This brings us back to Siskel's test. Watching interviews with the females of the cast, which include Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish and Vanessa Hudgens, is in many respects more interesting than the film itself. These are intelligent, articulate women, Malone in particular. Watching them speak about the bonds they created while training and filming and the film's buried themes of female empowerment and escaping pain through fantasy is compelling stuff.

While watching the film you can see that Synder is attempting to explore these ideas, but his approach is too shallow. There are basically two very different films here that don't quite fit together. The first is a study of the struggle of institutionalized females. The second is a bombastic action spectacular that blends comic books, video games and music videos.

Synder deserves credit for attempting to address lofty concepts, but they get lost as his focus is more on creating the next great spectacle. On that level the film delivers. The battle sequences are visually compelling, artfully designed and exciting. Scott Glenn as a sort of guide to each mission adds some nice comic relief.

Individually these scenes work, but there's a disconnect from the rest of the film. The first fantasy creates too much distance from the reality of what is happening. Certainly, one dream reality would've sufficed. The stripper world adds nothing to the film's structure and is merely there for titillation. The film would've been stronger if the characters went straight into the action fantasies. This also would've allowed for more carefully observed scenes of the girl interacting in the institution.

Browning is unremarkable as Baby Doll. She is basically a pouty blank. Out of the rest of the cast, Malone and Cornish as sisters fair best. Outside of Baby Doll's backstory, they are the only characters who are given any sort of shading and background to play with. They provide the film with a genuine human connection that gives the film some fleeting emotional truth.

As for the titular sucker punch? It is the audience that is the recipient thanks to an ending that makes sense, but feels like a cheat. It is a conclusion that works on one level, but infuriates on another.

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