BIRTH Enough raw queasy promise to make John Waters weep.
dir. Jonathan Glazer
Opens Fri Oct 28.

In this time of reality shows, celeb porn, and male enhancement commercials, coming up with subject material that successfully hopscotches over the steadily narrowing taboo line counts as quite an achievement. Birth, a film depicting the quasi-supernatural attraction between a widow and a 10-year-old boy, offers up enough raw queasy promise in its premise to make John Waters weep, but depicts its borderland material with such stately and pristine reserve that it's hard to imagine it offending anyone. Therein lies the primary offense.

Nicole Kidman, wearing a rather too-apt Rosemary's Baby hairdo, plays Anna, an upper-crust New York ice maiden whose imminent nuptials are rocked by the sudden appearance of a spooky-cute unblinking kid who claims to be possessed by her decade-dead husband. Laughed off at first, the initially unwelcome visitor reveals an increasing number of intimate details that cause Anna to rethink her thoughts on the afterlife, social status, family ties, and most creepily, the local legal age of consent.

This is all juicy, potentially outrageous stuff, to be sure, but the film continually finds ways to defuse the moral questions it labors to raise. Anna becomes a believer far too easily to convince, tangential evidence is swiftly provided and disposed of, and, most inexplicably, the initially intriguing mystical elements are greatly diminished by an early plot development. The story may posit a slew of blather about soul transference and the world beyond, but, crucially, the film never quite comes off as believing its own pitch. One well-staged (and much hyped) bathtub encounter aside, there's nothing here that clammily lingers the way it should.

This lack of urgency or alarm proves to infuse the actors as well. Kidman is granted a couple of show-stopping, if calculated, breakdowns, but the rest of the cast (including Lauren Bacall, Peter Stormare, and Ted Levine) appear all too blasé about the Jerry Lee Lewish events unfolding around them. (Matters aren't helped by the fact that the romantic competition comes in the shambling, liver-lipped form of Danny Huston, who, following his baffling lead role in Silver City, here confirms his promise as the most uncharismatic actor of his generation.) A wild card is badly needed to shake the characters (and filmmakers, for that matter) out of their nouveau riche, martini-tranqued cocoons, but aside from an unjustly brief appearance by a jittery-eyed Anne Heche, there's none to be found.

This marks the second film for director/cowriter Jonathan Glazer, whose debut, Sexy Beast, brilliantly melded the rigors of Mamet-speak with freewheeling Cockney caffeine. Here, the director apes late-period Kubrick, to uncanny, if snooze-inducing, effect. (One can imagine Stanley himself shambling out of his crypt to applaud the lengthy opening shot, in which a Steadicam doggedly follows a black-clad runner through a snowy park.) Every composition is immaculate, every nuance is modulated, every cut positioned for maximum effect. All that's missing is any sense of an inner life of the characters. The rampaging id of Beast's Ben Kingsley is sadly extinct.

The press notes indicate that Birth stands as bit of a dream realization for Glazer, who came up with the concept during his days as a video director for, among others, Radiohead. While signs are positive that the director will recover from his sophomore slump (his next project, Chaos, features both Robert De Niro and Benicio Del Toro in a crackerjack kidnapping plot), this film, unfortunately, bears all the hallmarks of a too-long-in-gestation pet project: over-planned, over-thought, and meticulously fussed-with to the point of stasis. For a subject primed to inspire either gasps or guffaws, there's precious little breathing room to spare.