By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
“I don’t need this aggravation.” Thus I spake just above a murmur during the harrying last thirty minutes of director Paul Haggis’s “The Next Three Days.” It seemed unfair. The middling saga of a husband who plots to break his wife out of the Big House hadn’t earned the right to so stress poor emotive me. Guess that’s just the sort of hairpin I am.
In the credit where credit is due department, Haggis’s adaptation of French filmmaker Fred Cavayé’s “Pour Elle” does put a challenging, ethical dilemma in your bonnet. Strict constructionists will rail. While not a true story, whether or not Elizabeth Banks’s Lara Brennan is guilty should be beside the point. Boosting someone out of jail is against the law.
And just to throw some hypothetical fuel on the philosophical fire, John Brennan also pulls several nasty moves on the way to his ultimate goal. The assumption is that up until now Russell Crowe’s mild mannered history professor and his convicted murderer wife, played by Elizabeth Banks, have led exemplary lives. But after a while, we aren’t so sure.
It isn’t the only recent film to more than tacitly tolerate vigilantism. Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (2010) skirted the apparently fuddy-duddy code of crime not paying in cinema. Killing scum seems to be OK. You wonder if this is a pattern. Immersing itself in such heady matters, “The Next Three Days” is therefore more provocative than entertaining.
Assayed individually, the acting is solid and the filmmaker’s Americanization of the screenplay is tight. But when the Sherlock in you homes in on why it doesn’t all seem to come together, you find it’s simply a microcosm of the greater problem. While we are intrigued by John Brennan’s desperate metamorphosis, we aren’t terribly invested in him.
The same goes for wife Lara, sentenced to twenty years for killing her boss. Top heavy with John’s intricate, studiously sketched schematic to free her, the script doesn’t give us cause to love her. But it does take effective steps to place more than a shadow of a doubt on her declared innocence. Gee, if she’s guilty, that makes hubby’s actions even worse.
Inserted to add further emotional weight to the gambit, the couple’s young son Luke (Ty Simpkins) is notably maladjusted by the calamitous circumstances. He’ll neither speak to, nor kiss Lara during visits to Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Jail. And giving us a little something else to mull is his playground friend’s rather alluring mommy (Olivia Wilde).
Otherwise, the bulk of the effort lives in its details. Making like a filmic Hansel and Gretel, Haggis leaves clues all along the suspense thriller’s intricate path. If you miss any, don’t worry. Later, he’ll remind which ones you should have paid attention to, and illustrate just how cleverly he’s etched the filigree of his derring-do. Perhaps too cleverly.
For alas, poor Yorick, ‘tis the tediousness of the tale that besmirches this film’s star. A well crafted structure doesn’t necessarily make for an architectural masterpiece. Aside from those last thirty minutes, this is rough going, with hardly a contravening dramatic mechanism to check the heavy dosage of sadness. Only our curiosity keeps us engaged.
While it’s almost always exciting to see Russell Crowe exercise his thespic muscles, John Brennan’s evolution from tweedy professor to full-scale, hard-nosed lawbreaker seems to skip some steps. Like the showing of an earlier aired sporting event edited to save time, he embodies the results, but not necessarily the full tenor of the experience.
Sure, he scowls and menaces, his academic brain rushing at full throttle as he paces before the full wall diagram of his planned derring-do. But while apologists for the portrayal might opine that Brennan’s all but missing fit of conscience is eclipsed by his anguish and scholarly zeal, it’d be more correct to note how inadequately he is written.
So what you essentially have is a contemporary, technologically enhanced update of Jean Valjean’s rationalization in “Les Misérables.” That in the name of a greater, unseen good, a leap of fate can be invoked to justify breaking man’s law, whether it’s stealing a piece of bread to stave off starvation, or, in this case, freeing a soul unjustly incarcerated.
Unfortunately, filmmaker Haggis doesn’t state his case quite as eloquently as Victor Hugo did. Then again, he doesn’t take 1,400 pages (1,900 in French) to make his point. Fact is, he never quite makes his point. Save for the wild roller coaster ride at the caboose end, “The Next Three Days” doesn’t deserve a place on your moviegoing calendar.
“The Next Three Days,” rated PG-13, is a Lionsgate release directed by Paul Haggis and stars Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks and Ty Simpkins. Running time: 122 minutes
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