Monday, July 16, 2007

Review: 1408

The Skinny:
A supernatural writer sets out to dispel the myth of a fabled, haunted room, 1408, in a New York City hotel.

The Review:
I like John Cusack. A lot.

That was a recurring thought I had once I finished seeing 1408. I started thinking about some of the characters he has played in all the movies of his that I liked and the list was pretty impressive. A sample:

- Sixteen Candles, Bryce (super-geek). Not a predominant role, but funny never the less. (Has it really been almost 25 years since this movie came out??!?… damn I'm getting old.) All-time classic.

- Better Off Dead…, Lane Meyer. If you're around my age and this movie isn't on your list of favorite movies growing up, you probably are better off… never mind. All-time classic.

- Say Anything…, Lloyd Dobler. Top shelf Cameron Crowe. Features one of the all-time best, sappiest, most memorable scenes of teenage angst set to a Peter Gabriel song; now a standard pop culture reference. "I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen", classic.

- Grosse Pointe Blank, Martin Q. Blank. A hit-man with a heart of gold.

- Being John Malkovich, Craig Schwartz. Classic.

- High Fidelity, Rob Gordon. One of my all-time favorite movies. A classic.

Lot of "classics" there. And there are others, but while I was compiling this list, I tried to think of how these movies would have come off if someone else had inhabited these roles. With the exception of the Sixteen Candles role, I can't really think of how any of them would have worked as well as they did without Cusack's trademark wit, charm, and delivery. He seems like the kind of guy you could have a beer with while discussing these roles and he would be almost as excited as you are to discuss them. Maybe not, but whether it be his younger roles of pitch-perfect teenage life, or his older roles of, well… pitch-perfect young adult life, he seems to just have it. That it being something intangible he brings to his characters that you can't describe, but you'd miss it if it weren't there.

1408 is the story of skeptical supernatural author, Mike Enslin (Cusack). He has made a career of debunking supposed supernatural hot spots by way of a few, less than best selling novels. After completing his latest round of research, he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in NYC. The message: "don't enter 1408". Thinking it to be a clever draw, he attempts to book a reservation at the Dolphin in room 1408 only to find that regardless of the date he chooses the room is "not available". After involving his agent and in-house lawyer by finding a clause in the Fair Housing Act that would force the Dolphin rent the room, the reservation for 1408 is booked and Enslin is off to for some more "routine" research. Once he arrives at the hotel, he finds out his reservation is flagged. The front desk clerk informs management, and the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), pulls Enslin aside and asks to speak with him privately in his office. Olin tells him that no one has ever lasted more than an hour and pleads with him not to stay in the room. He bribes him with a penthouse suite upgrade, access to all documentation of the 56 deaths that have occurred in the room, and an $800 bottle of cognac if he opts not to stay in the room. Enslin insists and Olin takes him to the 14th floor. On the way he questions the validity of all the claims to which Olin stops, and turns back (with the classic icy Sam Jackson stare) and proclaims: "It's an evil fucking room". When Enslin presses the issue and thanks him for the concern of his well being, Olin, unfazed, calmly states, "Look, I just don't want to clean up the mess".

Once finally inside the room, alone, he begins a series of examinations and comments at how unremarkable the room appears to be. The alarm clock in the room blares, sets itself at 60:00, and begins counting down. He begins to hear and see things that he passes as hallucinations from, what he suspects is, spiked cognac. Visions of past guests killing themselves, the temperature going from boiling hot, to so cold it snows, visions of his separated wife and daughter; he attempts to keep everything grounded with some sort of realistic explanation but soon falls victim to the mythology and attempts to leave the room. I don't want to ruin anything for those who haven't seen it, so I wont explain any further other than to say the room wont let him, and we spend the rest of the film watching him go crazy trying to get out.

The better part of this movie is just Cusack by himself in a room, and it works. Cusack doesn't bite the hand that feeds him and uses exactly what has worked for him so many times in the past – that intangible quality I talked about earlier. There aren't many actors that could pull this off and make it watchable. Tom Hanks did to a larger degree in Cast Away, and it worked there too; for a while. But much like Cast Away, a good story and setup kind of fell apart for me in the 3rd act. There was a point in 1408 where I was reminded of another of Cusack's movies, Identity, and how ripped off I felt at the end of that movie because it felt like they cheated by using one of the oldest, most tired, hack plot devices of all time to explain everything. For a few minutes, it felt like I was suckered again. Then come to find out, my fears were not realized. And while it didn't cheat, it didn't really fully recover either.

The Rub:
I loved the story and the setup. Cusack makes this even better by doing what he does best. While for me it didn't work so much as a 'horror movie' (I specify me because my girlfriend spent most of the movie on my lap…) it was still a good premise and entertaining movie nonetheless, even if it did stumble a bit at the end. And there's the rub.

*** of *****

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