Friday, March 9, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time: Crumpled beyond recognition

A Wrinkle in Time (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.9.18

Many reasons exist for this book’s failure to be adapted to the big screen, during the half-century since its publication in 1962, all of which director Ava DuVernay and scripters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell attempted to ignore, evade or surmount.

Their well-intentioned effort clearly is heartfelt; it’s just as clearly a failure.

Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), younger brother of Meg (Storm Reid), has the ability to
"know things." Ergo, he's not surprised by the unexpected appearance of the decidedly
unusual Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon).
Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal-winning fantasy was quite unusual for its time: a loquacious children’s novel that blends discussions of quantum physics and upper-echelon mathematics with a Christian subtext likely inspired by C.S. Lewis. It’s a “head” story, with much of the narrative probing the thoughts and interactions of its protagonist, who — also quite unusual, for its time — is a young teenage girl.

That latter detail no doubt has made the book more attractive to today’s potential filmmakers, and I guess DuVernay can be applauded for bravery. But her handling of A Wrinkle in Time is ponderous, boring and weird, with characters too frequently placing so much weight on flowery speeches, that I’m surprised the words don’t sink beneath the story’s many unusual landscapes.

Much of the acting is stiff and clumsy, and Ramin Djawadi’s relentlessly maudlin orchestral score — which never, ever lets up — makes one want to scream for relief.

DuVernay practically begs her audience to regard this film as Momentously Important, and — needless to say — that’s the death of successful drama. (Indeed, she did beg, during the uncomfortably awkward on-camera appeal that preceded Tuesday evening’s preview screening.)

The many disappointing performances notwithstanding, Storm Reid is an exception. She stands tall as the saga’s heroine, Meg Murry, a brilliant but self-conscious social outcast who has come to believe that she’s nowhere near the best version of herself. Since that insecurity is worn like a shroud, she’s naturally a target for mean-spirited classmates.

Reid handles this role with delicacy, her flickering, downcast eyes often half-concealed by a hairstyle she wears as a shield. She blends the awkwardness of departing childhood with the coltish grace of impending womanhood, her face often on the verge of tears that Meg likely couldn’t explain. At the same time, Reid exudes the perception and ferocious intelligence at the core of this girl. She’s a marvelous heroine.

Adolescent angst notwithstanding, Meg has good reason for her unrelenting despair: She grieves the loss of her father (Chris Pine), a scientist who simply ... vanished ... four years earlier. He and his equally brilliant wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) — they’re never given first names, and are addressed simply as Mother and Father — had been working on a high-falutin’ concept of instantaneous space travel via what’s dubbed a “tesseract.”

Mr. Murry disappeared shortly after the birth of Meg’s younger brother, Charles Wallace, now 6 years old and gifted with a spooky, near-psychic ability to anticipate and “know” things. This gift no doubt explains why DuVernay has Deric McCabe play the character with such precious gravity, but — alas — the young fellow hasn’t near the acting chops for what the role demands.

I spent the entire film thinking how far superior Steven Spielberg is, at handling young actors, and how much more believable this story might have been, had somebody more capable been cast as Charles Wallace.

Most particularly during the crucial third act, when poor McCabe flails, founders and whines his way through a wholly unconvincing series of speeches and actions. One can but wince.

The events in L’Engle’s book always felt capriciously random, in the manner of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and still do, as verified by a re-reading in preparation for this film). DuVernay and her scripters have done nothing to address this problem, despite co-star Oprah Winfrey’s increasingly tiresome efforts to conceal gaping narrative gaps via portentous declarations that sound like they were cribbed from discarded fortune cookies.

Stuff just happens here, for neither rhyme nor reason, building to an ultimate confrontation between ... well, the same two sides that concerned C.S. Lewis.

So, on an otherwise average day, Charles Wallace introduces Meg and their mother to the appears-out-of-nowhere Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a gaudily dressed but somewhat vague individual who doesn’t seem entirely comfortable interacting with people, as if she’s wearing a suit of clothes that fits improperly. This encounter is followed, the next day, by the arrival of fellow classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), a popular “cool kid” who felt a sudden urge to be with Meg and Charles Wallace.

Charles Wallace subsequently takes them to see the equally opulent Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in familiar aphorisms (always politely citing author and country of origin). After which, they meet the much more regal Mrs. Which (Winfrey), and suddenly they all tesseract their way to a verdant planet on the far side of the universe.

I feel compelled to mention that, for all their whimsical eccentricities, L’Engle made quite distinct and entertaining characters of Who, Which and Whatsit. Kaling, Winfrey and Witherspoon bring nothing to the party here; their interpretations are interchangeably contrived, bizarre and clumsily unconvincing.

This adventure’s goal is to rescue Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, who — four years earlier — naïvely “tessered” his way to a very dangerous part of the galaxy: the planet Camazotz, home base of a “black thing” that is the source of all evil in the universe. For no particular reason, this disturbing cloud of wispy black tendrils also is known as IT (pronounced “it,” despite the capital letters).

(It could be argued, with amusement, that L’Engle was disturbingly prophetic, given that much of today’s evil can be attributed to the rising influence of an entirely different IT pronounced by its individual letters.)

The eventual confrontation between the children and IT, on Camazotz, is the book’s most thrilling portion. DuVernay and her scripters literally throw it away, condensing great stuff with The Man with Red Eyes (demoted here to a throwaway appearance by Michael Peña) — easily the novel’s most unsettling character — in favor of pointless chunks of time spent in special effects-enhanced environments invented for this movie.

The worst of which, by far, involves a visit to the Happy Medium, who explains what has happened to Mr. Murry. This entire sequence flops miserably: The set design is daft, the pacing and dialog are off, and the atrociously miscast Zach Galifianakis’ portrayal of Happy is by far the most embarrassingly inept job he’s ever done (and we’re talking about a guy with a lot of bad movies on his résumé).

Granted, L’Engle’s book needed fleshing out, and an attempt at some sort of continuity that would resonate with modern viewers. But in their effort to do that, DuVernay and her scripters have made the story even less accessible.

Worse yet, they left out the book’s most poetic revelation — the actual identities of Who, Which and Whatsit — and one of its most disturbing images: the little boy in a typically picture-perfect Camazotz suburban neighborhood, who, unlike all the other children on the block, is unable to bounce his ball in cadence.

Instead of which, earlier on, we spent 10 minutes in a lush field of sentient flowers.

L’Engle was still with us, and therefore able to comment on the only earlier adaptation of this book: a 2003 Canadian television production which, when asked about it during a Newsweek interview, she acknowledged met her expectations: “I expected it to be bad, and it is.”

I suspect her opinion of this version would be even more caustic. (Perhaps mercifully, she died in 2007.)

Ultimately — much the way Christopher Nolan’s Inception was a lot of stuff and nonsense en route to revealing the identity of a surrogate Rosebud — DuVernay’s Wrinkle in Time is a similarly dull, drawn-out exercise in order to conclude (metaphorically) with a Beatles song.

Definitely not worth the effort involved to get there.

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