[Screen It]

(2009) (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) (PG-13)

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Science-fiction: A married couple is approached by a mysterious stranger with a tempting offer where if they push the button on a seemingly non-descript box, they'll receive $1 million, with the catch being someone somewhere in the world who they don't know will die as a result.
In 1976, husband-and-wife Norma and Arthur Lewis (CAMERON DIAZ and JAMES MARSDEN) live in Richmond, Va., with their son Walter SAM OZ STONE) and have good jobs. She is a teacher, and he is scientist working for NASA. But they live paycheck to paycheck and can't seem to get ahead.

Into their lives comes a mysterious stranger named Arlington Steward (FRANK LANGELLA), who drops off a box one morning. The box has a button on it. Arlington soon informs that if they push the button, they will receive $1 million tax-free. What's the catch? Someone, somewhere in the world who they do not know will die.

Norma eventually decides to push the button, but they immediately have second thoughts after receiving the cash. Arthur starts to investigate further to determine Arlington's real identity, who he works for, and why he chose them. Arlington, who seems to have eyes and ears everywhere including the Lewises' babysitter, Dana (GILLIAN JACOBS), punishes the couple for not leaving well enough alone. This puts into motion a series of events that will lead this couple to make some exceedingly hard choices involving life and death.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
"The Box" is adapted from a Richard Matheson short story titled "Button, Button" that itself was made into a classic "Twilight Zone" episode. At the outset, you can practically envision the late, great series host Rod Serling sauntering onto screen and saying, "Imagine if you will..."

"The Box" is set in 1976 and follows Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), a husband-and-wife couple in Richmond, Va., struggling to make ends meet. Then, one day, a mysterious stranger named Arlington (Frank Langella) gives them a box with a red button on it. If they press the button, they will receive $1 million in tax-free cash. But they will also be responsible for the death of someone somewhere in the world who they don't know.

For the first third of the flick, "Donnie Darko" writer-director Richard Kelly has a lot of fun with the whole "Would you do it or not?" scenario. It's hard not to put yourself into the shoes of the Lewises, especially if you are indeed married with money woes. Of course, the Lewises push the button. There would be no movie if they didn't. That leads into the film's second act, where Norma and Arthur get the screws put to them after Arlington learns that Arthur has been looking into his past.

The problem is the film's third act, where Kelly loosens his grip on the audience and delves deeper and deeper into science fiction. It's like Kelly watched three or four "Twilight Zone" or "Outer Limits" episodes and tried to shoehorn several of those shows' concepts into this offering. The editing gets increasingly sloppy and the whole thing starts to feel weighed down.

When all is said and done, I could see what Richard Kelly was going for here. I just wish he had streamlined his narrative somewhat. The plot doesn't really need the additional details of Norma's deformed foot, and it certainly doesn't need a family wedding happening in the background and always threatening to take up screen time.

For the most part, the acting is quite good here. Langella is magnificently creepy in the most elegant way possible. Diaz, meanwhile, has been carrying movies for more than a decade now. Here, in particular, she seems to love dressing up in period attire and hair. And Marsden continues to impress after solid turns in such flicks as "Enchanted" and "Superman Returns." All three do good character work, with Langella basically playing the Serpent to Diaz and Marsden's Adam and Eve.

It's all about action and reaction, cause and effect. It's also one of those films that is fun to talk about if you have a long drive home from the cinema. I was entertained and intrigued for most of the running time, which is why I think "The Box" rates a respectable 6.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed November 5, 2009 / Posted November 6, 2009

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