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2005-07-15 07:21:12 (link)
Fantastic Four - Review

Even comic book novices would find it hard to watch the new “Fantastic Four” adaptation without seeing the framework for an outstanding movie. Setting aside the standard gravity-defying freaks with chiseled bodies caught in a struggle between good and bad, what makes the “Fantastic Four” so interesting is that they’re superstar superheroes—evil-thwarters that better suit our celebrity-obsessed times than spoil-sports like Peter Parker.

But unfortunately, in the freshly minted big-screen rendition, the clever angles on fame only come through in flashes. And those precious hints at what could have been come buried in a movie so earnestly oblivious of the opportunities for satire it’s blown that its absence of irony becomes downright ironic.

“Fantastic Four” follows the group’s origin story, in which brilliant, but down on his luck scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd, “King Arthur”) and partner Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, TV’s “The Shield”) must turn to Richards’ billionaire rival Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon,TV’s “Nip/Tuck”) to fund a research expedition into outer space.

Bringing along Von Doom, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), his director of genetic research and love interest (and Richards’ former flame), as well as Storm’s younger brother Johnny (Chris Evans, “Cellular”), a youthfully out of control pilot, the voyage takes a turn when radiation exposure finds them with inconvenient but potent new powers—especially for Grimm, who becomes a giant and disfigured, but superhumanly strong figure. As the four learn to control their powers, a very public display of heroics and powers makes them celebrities. But a bankrupted and angry Von Doom uses his powers to seek revenge, particularly on Richards.

Hell has a special section for movies that can’t go fifteen minutes without applying the words “director of genetic research” to Jessica Alba. But shoddy and accidentally silly character handling is par for the course in “Fantastic Four.” Richards is played so stiffly that he makes for a desperately humorless version of Egon from “Ghostbusters.” And Johnny is crafted as such an obnoxious generational archetype through wisecracks and extreme sports (yes, more than one) that the otherwise charming Evans seems ripped straight from a Mountain Dew commercial.

Only McMahon and Chiklis, two superlative TV actors, do anything to stem the tide of poor writing and empty direction. McMahon’s cold intensity and Chiklis’ humanity and presence would have fit admirably into a far better version of the same movie—perhaps one in which Chiklis wasn’t constantly forced to mutter one-liners to himself.

But this movie wasn’t designed to be inspired comic book fare recent “Batman,” “Spider-Man,” and “X-Men” outings were. Producers backed out of handing the project to Peyton Reed, the director of “Down With Love,” who wanted to focus on the Four’s celebrity status in the style of “A Hard Day’s Night,” which would at least have been interesting. Instead, they handed the movie to Tim Story.

Known previously for “Barbershop” and “Taxi,” Story wasn’t merely unqualified on a technical level, having never shown a sleek enough style or a proficiency for action or CGI. He brought no sense of thematic direction or overarching sense of humor to the table. As an origin story that deals intermittently in celebrity, love triangle, and mere spectacle angles, the movie cripplingly lacks center. Story has only made one good movie, “Barbershop,” and it wasn’t a focused one. “Fantastic Four” desperately needed one idea, one theme, to be put up front. Story dropped the ball. And the action and comedy elements that could have helped redeem the lack of conceptual thoughtfulness are simply third-rate. Hiring Story was a fast-track to “Daredevil”-quality output.

“Fantastic Four” has entertaining moments and interesting elements, but only enough to show how wasted the source material is and how ill-constructed the cast is. It could have been something more and better by breaking the comic book movie mold. Instead, it’s less and worse for trying so hard to fit the genre so exactly. The original comics deserved an adaptation more substantive and clever than this. And audiences deserved the fresh, inventive movie this could have been, rather than the stale “Fantastic Four” that arrived instead.

by Amos Posner

[sidenote - I saw "Me and You and Everyone We Know" and thought it was really good. Unfortunately it's only airing in NY and LA, and it's not scheduled to come out anywhere else. Plus, the Onion's review was spot on, so I won't be reviewing it. But check out Rabin's review in the Onion and if you're a coastal kid, go see it. - Amos]


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