The surreal Jennifer Lopez thriller is incoherent, says Lisa Schwarzbaum

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated August 18, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

”The Cell”’s visual allure can’t save the movie

In ”The Cell,” Jennifer Lopez plays a psychologist for whom Freud is SO five minutes ago. Thanks to a futuristic neurological contraption that involves suiting up in tight rubber and slathering on plenty of lip gloss, she can tap into the dreams and unconscious desires and fears of a patient, bypassing all the tedious analysis stuff. When she jacks into the mind of a serial killer, though, she’s not prepared for the goo she finds inside.

Think of Lopez as a curvier Neo out of ”The Matrix,” think of the killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) as a close relative of the sicko in ”The Silence of the Lambs” and you get the formula. But two big flaws junk up the recipe. The first is the curse of commercial and music video directors everywhere: an obsession with style at the expense of substance. Tarsem Singh, the director of ”The Cell,” won an MTV video award for his contribution to REM’s ”Losing My Religion”; he has also produced visually opulent ads for consumer products including Levi’s jeans and Miller Lite beer.

And ”The Cell” is an ad for — well, for a glittering yet oddly stereotypical notion of the subconscious. Without knowing anything more about the psychologist (except that even in bed her lips shine), or about the killer, or about the FBI agent (Vince Vaughn) working the case, the dreams of each, made visible in exquisitely produced sequences, mean nothing. They’re trippy but random, colorful but numbing. Had Tarsem stuck a Chanel bag or bottle of Calvin Klein perfume into the picture, he’d have ruined nothing, only reminded us where we’ve seen compositions like these before.

The second flaw is an old one, a persistent one, something that ruins my concentration every time: It’s the assumption that religion is the province of nuts and the birthplace of criminals. I’ve written about this before — how a crucifix on the wall in a movie more often than not marks the home of a character who’s warped by piety. But here it is again, afresh, applied to a hideously twisted character who cages and tortures women before killing them, and whose trauma goes back to a childhood time when he was baptized in a river. (That’s not the only root of his troubles; his father also used to call him ”faggot,” so you see, he HAD to go bad.) As for the psychologist, she’s like… the Virgin Mary! Beaming and blessing and healing the sick. That’s an awful lot to lay on a sci-fi thriller, even one as tarted up as ”The Cell.” I’m as eager as the next voyeur to pry into the mind of a serial killer, but I prefer mine with fava beans.

The Cell

  • Movie
  • R
  • 107 minutes
  • Tarsem Singh