What director Richard Kelly has done is basically taken Richard Matheson’s short story that worked well in the confines of a thirty minute anthology series like “Twilight Zone” and basically stretched it in to nearly two hours. “The Box” by all accounts should have been an instant win, but it’s a short story stretched in to a grueling two hour period. Kelly continues his fall from grace (Southland Tales, I’m looking at you) creatively by helming a miscast and pretty terribly written loose adaptation of Matheson’s original story that features James Marsden and Cameron Diaz as a Virginia married couple facing dead end jobs and unemployment. Conveniently they receive a package one morning housing a box with a red button that presents to them a most tempting offer.
Its caretaker Arlington Steward appears at their doorstep offering them a million dollars tax free if they press the button that will kill a random person they don’t know. Of course since the whole point of the story is the moral implication involving the exchange of money for a human life it really doesn’t take long at all for them to decide. It only takes forty minutes to tell us the story of these characters, introduce our enigmatic button caretaker and give them the opportunity to press the button. The remaining eighty minutes revolve around basic padding that involves the couple of Marsden and Diaz trying to uncover who Arlington Steward is and why they’re basically being stalked by him. And then there’s the foot. Screenwriter Kelly stresses the significance of Diaz’s character Norma’s foot which seems to have a real key importance to the plot and then is suddenly forgotten as the story progresses in to endlessly incoherent plot elements involving cults, government conspiracy, and questions about the after life.
Almost none of it has to do with the stupid red button in the wooden box. The vast potential to discover life changing decisions, fate, and karma is lost in the muddled plot that Kelly composes to fit the time restraints of two hours. The entire film goes on about seemingly everything imaginable and never quite explains what the importance of it all is. Is Steward a madman? Was he possessed by aliens? Is he god? Is he the devil? Or is he a mere messenger for something more vast? Nevertheless Kelly can never quite manage to gauge sympathy for these characters because they’re simply not interesting at all. While Marsden tries his hardest in this role his character is painfully underdeveloped and rather one dimensional.
Frank Langella basically stumbles around in this performance that should have made the movie, and he never takes advantage of the opportunity to create this intriguing presence. The worst aspect of it all is Cameron Diaz who gives a truly hilarious performance as this vacuous woman with an over the top back story that does nothing to further our interest in her. Not to mention her Virginian accent often fades in and out rather noticeably. Meanwhile we’re told from the beginning that this young couple are living “paycheck to paycheck” yet they reside in a very lush neighborhood in a large house with food by the bundles. Father Arthur (Marsden) even works for NASA and is able to treat his wife to a prosthetic foot midway.
It completely destroys all logic, especially when we later see another couple who happen to be living rather pretty as well. It’s a shame that Kelly never actually grasps the potential of this story because he has a perfect handle on the surreal and what fate can entail with “Donnie Darko” but here most of it seems like just filler to stretch what should have been a forty minute story. Every bit of this tale is stale cold and attempts at surprise twists and existentialism fail to impress on every level. I guess there’s a reason why “Button, Button” is a short story, because sometimes a concept only works in short form. “The Box” proves that painfully. Richard Kelly’s downward spiral continues with what is a pretty grueling bastardization of a rather clever story from Richard Matheson. All moral conflicts and creepy allusions are lost in a barrage of ridiculous plot devices, and a story that makes absolutely no sense.