FEBRUARY 18, 2017
One of my favorite movies is Meet Joe Black, which a lot of people hated on account of it being so glacially paced, but for me I think that was part of the point of it - the film is, after all, about someone trying to make the most out of his last few days before Death (Brad Pitt!) takes him away. Director Martin Brest and his editor(s?) let everything breathe just a touch longer than necessary, making the film run three hours long (to the second!), a mostly successful way of getting Anthony Hopkins' mental state across to the audience - you too would want to hold on to everything when you knew for sure when your time was up. Long story short, I understand why that movie is as overlong as it is, but I can't for the life of me figure out why Gore Verbinski and HIS editors let A Cure For Wellness run two and a half hours long to tell its own, less moving of a story about a guy getting stuck in an asylum.
Let that runtime sink in a bit: two and a half hours long. 150 minutes. That's longer than all of this year's Best Picture nominees by a comfortable margin, even though overlong films are usually synonymous with Oscar recognition. And if I was the type of reviewer who summed up the plot, I could do so without skipping any important details and you'd be left wondering how the movie could possibly run that long. Now, I'm not saying long movies are bad (this actually runs just a bit SHORTER than two of my all time favorite films, in fact), but there has to be a justification for asking you to sit there that long, and Wellness ultimately does not provide one. It's not a terrible movie or anything, but as it dragged on and kept failing to switch into a new gear that would pay off the long wait to get there, I found myself getting more and more frustrated, and less and less concerned for the well-being of its heroes.
Like most movies that ultimately feel too long (and I should stress I knew how long it was before I bought my ticket), things start of well enough, though in retrospect perhaps our hero Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) arrives at the asylum a bit too early considering how long he'll be there before the movie ends - perhaps more time spent in New York would have sufficed, letting the buildup to his arrival breathe a bit? I swear he gets there at around the 15 minute mark, on a mission from his bosses to find Pembroke, a company partner who needs to sign off on some documents in order for a merger to go through (yep, like Meet Joe Black, it involves a merger! That's actually why it came to mind; I don't automatically associate every movie with Martin Brest's underrated classic). Pembroke went to this place in Sweden (sort of a cross between a spa and a detox center?) to get better and suddenly/mysteriously decided not to return, so Lockhart is sent to get him back and sign the papers before someone goes to jail (there's some vague corporate misconduct stuff that Verbinski seems to know no one will care about, so he pretty much skips over it). At first, the unhelpful staff gives the impression that the movie will be about his quest to find this guy, but he does like 10-15 minutes later with little fanfare, so there goes that theory. And it's not like there's any indication that this place might actually be on the up and up, so we are quickly placed into "What are they really up to?" mode and hoping the answers will be worth the wait.
Well, at 90 or even near 120 minutes, they probably would be. The reveal is actually kind of gonzo and feels like something that you might find in a Hammer movie, and few actors are better equipped to play sinister mad scientist types than Jason Isaacs, so for all its faults the movie at least ends on a high note. But since we know where Pembroke is and also that the place is not just a typical spa so quickly, there's precious little intrigue to sustain us through the film's endless series of scenes where Lockhart sneaks around, sees something creepy, and is sent back to his room. There's a mysterious female patient (Mia Goth) who is treated like a daughter by Isaacs and is also the only other patient besides Lockhart (who is confined there when he breaks his leg in a car accident as he attempts to return to his hotel on the first day) who is under sixty, it seems, so in between the more thriller-y stuff we get scenes of the two of them bonding, though thankfully the film avoids giving them an actual romance (his character is late twenties, but she's a teen). Since we know Isaacs is a villain the only real question (in general, I mean) is whether she is too, but the character isn't interesting enough to give the movie the amount of ammo it needs.
Also, not a lot really happens, making it a peculiar version of a "horror film" as it lacks any real thrills or scares despite the finale that's ripped out of any traditional B-movie. The car crash is one for the ages (and involves a deer, which I want to believe is Verbinski's way of throwing shade at The Ring Two), and folks who have an issue with dental trauma better keep their hands ready to block their ears and eyes, but with the central mystery being kind of a bust (even the specifics are kind of obvious - we know something's up with the water almost instantly, yet it takes DeHaan like two hours to come to this conclusion) the movie could have used a lot more "stuff" to jolt it back to life every now and then. Almost the entire film is from Lockhart's perspective, and I can't help that might have been a fatal decision - perhaps letting some of the side characters (such as a middle aged woman who fills Lockhart in on the asylum's past, and seems to be the only other patient besides him to mistrust the place) have their own solo adventures would have been beneficial.
One thing it never fails to deliver is a nice LOOKING film, however. Verbinski's always been dependable for creating striking images, though he seems to be losing his touch when it comes to marrying them to a compelling storyline. This is his fourth disappointing effort in a row (after Lone Ranger, Rango, and the third Pirates film), a troubling streak for a career that began so promisingly; I can't help but wonder if he needs to be reigned in a bit by his producers, not unlike Zack Snyder (who also seemed to satisfy audiences more in the earlier part of his career than as of late), as I'm sure his mammoth successes have given him final cut and less interference than he might otherwise receive on these studio efforts. The trailer spoils a number of these meticulously planned shots (the mirrored train going around the bend, the old folks doing water aerobics with the red/green balls, etc), but there are plenty of others to enjoy, and honestly it's probably the only thing that kept me going once it neared the two hour mark and I realized that there wasn't any time left for the movie to ever be more than another "A guy finds out a creepy doctor is up to no good" movie, the type of which I've seen several times before and often got me home about an hour earlier.
Oddly, one exception is Shutter Island, which ran about ten minutes shorter but had a far more engaging story (and better flashbacks - here we occasionally see Lockhart's parents, but there's precious little payoff to their implementation, which is often quite awkward). It's a movie I couldn't help thinking of anyway since DeHaan bares a slight resemblance to young Leonardo DiCaprio, but I had to laugh when I went out later and saw that Syfy was running the film as their Saturday night movie (apparently they don't have any sci-fi options?). The TV was muted (this was at a bar for a friend's birthday) and it was about halfway through the film, but I found myself more interested in what was happening than I ever managed after about 45 minutes or so of Wellness, which pretty much sums up the overall problem with it. When it comes out on Blu-ray, rent it from Redbox and watch it at 1.5x speed so you can still hear the dialogue - I suspect that it will be more satisfying as a whole. And if not, at least you'll find out in 50 minutes' less time.
What say you?
P.S. There's a flashback to 1987, focused on the stock market crash that happened that year - and a little boy is seen playing with a Robocop figure to establish the timeframe. I almost wish I could forgive the movie's faults on the strength of that alone.