The Cell

on August 18, 2000 by Annlee Ellingson
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   The marketing campaign for "The Cell"--the debut of award-winning commercial and music video director Tarsem, who's known for his "stunning art direction" (as touted by the press notes)--relies heavily on these talents, showing stars Jennifer Lopez and Vincent D'Onofrio in elaborate costumes and on surreal sets. While these elements are indeed stunning in the characters' coma-induced dream sequences, the plot points that get them there leave something to be desired.

   In her first major role since the critically acclaimed "Out of Sight," Lopez plays Catherine Deane, a child psychologist who's been recruited to counsel a little boy who's slipped into a coma. Through an unnecessarily extrinsic mechanism--why they have to wear skin-tight rubber suits and be suspended in mid-air is anyone's guess--Catherine can slip into her patient's mind, not only to analyze what might be wrong but to make contact and try to help. Lopez is distracting in the role--either because she's not good or because she's, well, Jennifer Lopez, but more likely because of the way the part is written. Most of what we find out about her is through other characters' dialogue.

   Meanwhile, FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) catches serial killer Carl Stargher (D'Onofrio) just a little too late--the creep has slipped into a schizophrenia-induced coma, leaving one victim behind to die in an unknown location. The only way to find out where she is, of course, is to get inside his head. Soon Peter is knocking on Catherine's door.

   It's a full 35 minutes before these two storylines even collide, and up until this point, the art direction--aside from Catherine's fleeting forays into her patient's desert landscapes--is pretty bland. Juxtaposition seems to be the goal here, but does the institute where Catherine works have to be that architecturally uninteresting?

   Likewise, the tone of "The Cell" is uneven. Visually arresting, the dream sequences are also a complicated psychological look at what makes us who we are--how our life experiences affect who we become and how we see ourselves in our own inner worlds. But outside, Vaughn is playing a pseudo action hero, overseeing a manhunt complete with SWAT teams, helicopters and lame dialogue like, "If we can't stop him, he ain't gonna stop himself" and "You're a bad man, aren't you Carl?," directed at the suspect's file mug shot.

   What's worse, it wasn't even necessary for Catherine to enter the mind of a serial killer in the first place; the clue that Peter picks up could have easily been derived from the crime scene. It's true that Catherine ultimately helps Carl--saves him, in a sense--but we never see her apply the experience to her original case, leaving her story with little closure.

   Still, in addition to its provocative production design, "The Cell" does include a remarkable performance by D'Onofrio, who continues to impress in difficult roles, here as Carl--an awkward, almost shy recluse--and as his beastly alter ego. That he pulled off both with authority proves his immense talent. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn and Vincent D'Onofrio. Directed by Tarsem. Written by Mark Protosevich. Produced by Julio Caro and Eric McLeod. A New Line release. Horror. Rated R for bizarre violence and sexual images, nudity and language. Running time: 107 min

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