The Jacket
dir. John Maybury
Opens Fri March 4.

Fire up the way-back machine: The business of time travel and alternative realities has long been a favored stomping ground for filmmakers with low budgets and high ambitions, many of whom cannily seize upon the opportunity to spice up the same old melodramatic conventions with the occasional flying car, cackling, bearded doppelgänger, or morphing landscape. As legions of frustrated screenwriters and oft-burned sci-fi fans can attest, though, the real trick is to keep things hopping past the initial pitch, crafting a complete framework capable of supporting the intermittent bursts of out-there creativity. The Jacket, an impressively pedigreed jaunt through the future past, starts out like a ball of jittery fire, with some jarring imagery and an admirable vibe of freeform anxiety, but becomes increasingly, distressingly square as it nears the homestretch. As much as it monkeys around with the timestream, it can't quite shake a general air of narrative déjá vu.

The setup is certainly juicy enough. A cerebrally scrambled Gulf War vet (Adrien Brody, badly needing a sandwich) gets sent to the asylum after a series of near-death experiences. Matters are not improved by the presence of a sadistic doc (a nicely mellow, yet growly, Kris Kristofferson) who promptly enlists him into an impromptu sensory-deprivation experiment involving a Big Gulp-sized syringe, an ominously ratty straightjacket, and a temporarily vacant morgue locker. While undergoing said test, he discovers an apparent portal into the future, which allows him both a hot girlfriend (Keira Knightley, struggling mightily with her character's trailer-park origins) with hazy ties to his current predicament and, more pressingly, clues to his rapidly approaching demise.

The good news is that the film's first 30 minutes or so are genuinely nifty in a fairly experimental, nonlinear fashion, with a veritable Möbius strip of randomly timed shock-frames complementing Brody's unreliable and heavily sedated narrator. (Special kudos to Alan MacDonald's dankly marvelous production design on the central set, which suggests Trent Reznor's rec room after heavy water damage.) Taken solely as a short film, it more than delivers the goods on a primal, impressively unsettling level, anchored by what appears to be honest-to-goodness claustrophobic hysteria on the actor's part.

More the bummer, then, that once the ground rules are set and future-Brody begins his quest to make matters retroactively right, things quickly run out of steam and settle into a lazy succession of easily guessed secrets and shallow character arcs. Unlike, say, the similarly themed Primer or Donnie Darko, which rode their temporal-mangling premises all the way into the loopy (yet still somehow logical) stratosphere, director John Maybury (previously responsible for the visually interesting Francis Bacon biopic Love Is the Devil) and screenwriter Massy Tadjedin seem unsure what to do with the open-ended opportunities suggested by their material. (For the eagle-eyed, the use of the same actor in two small yet significant roles does give the barest whiff of a darker, potentially more intriguing possibility for the hero's visions, but, based on one viewing at least, there's not quite enough evidence to make for a solid alternative hypothesis.) Despite frequent clangings of imminent doom via the soundtrack and supporting cast members, nothing ever really, truly seems in jeopardy.

Thanks to an expert trailer and some major Sundance buzz, The Jacket seems poised to receive some respectable business from those hungering for a quick hit of future shock during these downer months. (From a personal standpoint, after the unjust lack of attention paid to such worthy films as Welcome to Collinwood and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, it would be rather nice to see the production team of George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh actually have a hit for once.) Truth be told, there is quite a lot to admire here, from Brian Eno's ace score, to some nifty supporting performances by the always welcome Daniel Craig, Brad Renfro, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, to that first reel's overriding air of jagged, shuddery discomfort. Ultimately, though, this would-be trip stays a bit too ground-bound to get much worked up over. Its theory could stand a little more chaos.

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