By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Director Zack Snyder’s inexplicably titled “Sucker Punch” is Xbox meets “Cabaret” via any number of exploitative WiP (women in prison) films, tossed with whatever else he could find in the kitchen sink. Truth be told, from the first time I saw the trailer, I dreaded the day I might have to see it. Chagrin admitted, my intolerance wasn’t entirely justified.
Not that I’m quick to recommend it. Far from it. However, as an example of a movie I otherwise wouldn’t even contemplate seeing, I’m reminded why I’m lucky to be a film critic. To quote from Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” And I want to know.
That is, I’d like to get a handle on what the filmmaker surmises he’s satisfying in his target audience. Then I’ll know whether to be despondent about where goeth our civilization, or simply chalk it off as mere diversion, fully confident that young viewers will nonetheless materialize into our required number of doctors, lawyers and baristas.
While my jury is still out on that, I’m pretty sure the five adolescent boys to my right were just along to ogle Emily Browning’s Baby Doll and her equally sexy cadre of sanatorium buddies. Nah, there would be no change in their destinies. I know a gaggle of future CPAs, hardware engineers and H.S. guidance counselors when I see them.
However, other than as an example of blatant cliché to be crusaded against, there is little here to foster a career in literature. But there is fearless experimentation, beginning with some very operatic opening minutes that play like a silent movie. Baby Doll’s mom dies. Wicked stepfather isn’t in the will. Yet if he can commit the kid, well, you get the idea.
But upon her arrival at the Lennox Asylum for the Mentally Insane, our heroine discovers that the institution is really just a sadomasochistic front for a sadomasochistic night club. Naturally, in best “Marat/ Sade” (1967) fashion, the caretakers are the real crazies, their charges a metaphor for society’s victims. It’s sing for your supper, or else.
Baby Doll demurs when first she meets fellow inmates Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone). No way will she become part of the act, forced by the evil hospital director/impresario, Blue Jones (Oscar Issac), to entertain the moneyed town and gown crowd. It is a veritable nightmare of aberrant raisons d’etre and twisted doctrines.
Playing the good cop to Blue’s showbiz version of Oil Can Harry, Carla Gugino is Dr. Vera Gorski. Splitting time between head psychiatrist duties and serving as stage manager for her boss’ all-consuming passion, she spots possibilities in Baby Doll. But it isn’t until our gal behind bars discovers an alternate reality that her interest is spurred.
Suddenly we are thrown into Baby Doll’s other dimension, where, as a fearsome warrior mentored by Scott Glenn’s Wise Man, she and her similarly transported cohorts battle their way through an abstract scavenger hunt that could secure their freedom. Often the squadron leader on their action-filled dogfights, he prescribes the trail they must take.
Whenever the show starts, off go their alter egos to fight the good fight, their anatomies left behind to amuse the decadent dudes and dames out for a night of slumming at the loony bin. It’s a race against time. Rumor has it Baby Doll is to be lobotomized. To and fro the scenario goes. But as nutty as it is, we nonetheless adjust to its dual world groove.
Grownups might experience an occasional guilty thrill whilst viewing what they full well know is mostly style and very little substance, or at least nothing that hasn’t been considered trite since their own high school days. When you “get it” on its intended level, the brief enjoyment feels like being over thirty yet still putting ketchup on your hot dog.
It’s just not done. All the same, the little bit of Ponce de Leon in you can’t help wonder how, in exactly what way, youth is currently being wasted on the young. This provides a rather good look at it, with no shortage of bombarding special effects and baroque art direction to gild the path and angrily plant a flag in its generational statement.
It’s also probably psychosexual: Junior’s first big screen encounter with whatever it is that speaks to his libido. Which proves the more an adult believes he understands a youth-oriented concept, the more beside the point he seems. So perhaps in deluding myself to think that I might decipher “Sucker Punch,” the title finally makes sense.
“Sucker Punch,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Zack Snyder and stars Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, and Jena Malone. Running time: 120 minutes
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