Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Director: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake
Running Time: 123 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"What about the brain?" That's the first question Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) asks the doctor who diagnoses him with ALS in James Marsh's biographical romance, The Theory of Everything. And as long as you know that Hawking's scientific breakthroughs and theories will be nudged aside in favor exploring his marriage and battle with this crippling disease, it's easy to respect what the film has to offer. Namely, two Oscar-worthy performances and an often uncomfortable, if necessarily detailed depiction of his physical deterioration. And that's the way this had to be since any detailed explanation of his work on film would have come across as dry or incomprehensible to even the most engaged viewers.

This isn't an adaptation of  his bestselling "A Brief History of Time," nor should it be, as anyone interested in digging further into his theories should probably just read that book or hunt down the many the documentaries covering it. The source is instead his ex-wife's memoir, "Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen," so it's unfair to criticize it for what it isn't, especially considering there will be some legitimate gripes with what it already is. And yet, it's still an effective, handsomely made film a lot of people will love for very valid reasons. Consider it a disease procedural about perseverance, with a love story as its backdrop.

We're first introduced to Hawking in 1963 as a 22-year-old doctorate student at Cambridge who's well-liked and intelligent, continually impressing his professor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis). It's here where the initially uncertain young man immerses himself in his studies of physics and cosmology, challenging many previously held theories about time, the origins of the universe and black holes. The script digs about as deep as that broad description, instead shifting the focus to his courtship of an intelligent, pretty liberal arts major named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), whose religious beliefs often clash with Hawking's scientific ones. But they hit it off, each intellectually impressed with the other in spite of their differences.

While studying at Cambridge, what initially seems to be Stephen's natural awkwardness soon leads to the frightening diagnosis of ALS (or Lou Gehrig's Disease), a degenerative motor neuron disease that will rob him of his muscle control, speech, and then, eventually, everything else. Given only two years to live, he and Jane marry and have children, with Hawking continuing to defy the odds, while his books and theories cement his status as one of the most brilliant and respected scientific minds of the past century.

What makes Hawking such a fascinating subject, despite the relatively straightforward approach to telling his story, is just how little we actually know about him. Aside from those familiar with his life's work, I'm willing to bet few had any idea he was married twice and had three kids. That he's probably known by most casual moviegoers as that guy in a wheelchair who speaks through a computer makes the need for a biopic long overdue. What the uninitiated won't walk away with is any clue as to why he's so revered or what he specifically accomplished. The few scenes touching on it are necessarily explained in layman's terms and some may even find themselves perplexed by those.

The movie goes out of its way not to turn into a physics lecture, as Anthony McCarten's script finds the right balance and tone in presenting the work in the context of his personal life, with Benoît Delhomme's cinematography aiding in creating a vivid, dreamy atmosphere. Had Marsh decided to go further with the science, he would have not only lost the audience, but probably damaged the flow of the film, which is deliberately paced as it is.

The focus is primarily on the ALS battle and it's an eye-opening look at a disease that's recently gotten a lot of attention without much knowledge or education. This at least provides that and Hawking's fight delivers the conflict, despite the heavy, but clumsily handled implication that both Stephen and Jane carried on extra-marital affairs. She with church organist and Stephen's eventual caretaker Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) and he with nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake). But the film goes to such great lengths to deny either cheated during their marriage that it's almost comical. It's as if the producers knew they wouldn't get Hawking's full endorsement unless they tip-toed over it, resulting in extreme vagueness.

Jane's pseudo-affair plays better, as she has to fight her emerging feelings for a kind man taking care of her husband and teaching their child, but the script's treatment of Stephen's relationship with that nurse (a late development) is flat-out strange. Perhaps unwilling to compromise Hawking's virtuous reputation, the affair is begrudgingly included, to the smallest extent possible. There's no risk of anyone confusing his personal or moral failings with Steve Jobs' anytime soon, but if the filmmakers weren't going all in and felt that uncomfortable, it probably should have been excised altogether.

While it may be a long-running joke that the quickest way to an Oscar is playing a real-life figure or someone with a debilitating disease, there's a real reason for it. It's extremely difficult. Redmayne does both, and is equally brilliant at it. Besides the subtle physical performance he has to pull off when Hawking first shows ALS symptoms, the most impressive work comes later, when confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak on his own, Redmayne maintains the spark and intelligence of that Cambridge student who first fell in love with physics and Jane. Besides the uncanny resemblance to the real man, there's very much a personality in there that's still shining through, even during Hawking's lowest health moments.

As the rock of the story, Felicity Jones embodies Jane with a strength that's startling, but not completely unexpected knowing how long she cared for her now ex-husband. But it's another thing to see it and witness how Jones presents it. Almost out of pure stubbornness and steely resolve she refuses to give up, answering a firm, certain "No" when frequently confronted with the possibility that she should. She just keeps chipping away to maintain his quality of life and add days, with Jones completely dialed in to this aspect of the character. Everyone will justifiably rave about Redmayne but the movie is as much Jones', with implication being that Hawking is alive today because of Jane. And based on what's presented here, it's difficult to argue that point.

Supposedly, Hawking has already seen and loved the film, but his most revealing comment was on its accuracy. "Broadly true," he called it. With those two words the real-life subject may have offered up a better review of the The Theory of Everything than anyone else possibly could. The whole thing does feel broadly accurate in the sense that Marsh gently brushes over the important moments of his life, touching on key events without stirring up too much controversy, and in two instances, actively avoiding it. It wouldn't be completely inaccurate to label it a "paint-by-numbers" biopic even if I detest the term, but thankfully the subject and acting highly elevate the material.

It's practically impossible not to get caught up in this, just as it's impossible for Hawking himself not to love it given his saintly depiction. That it manages to do this without coming off too saccharine or syrupy, at least until the final scenes, is more than commendable. That he miraculously exceeded doctors' projections by a good forty plus years is the ultimate irony considering his belief in science over faith. While both undoubtedly played a big role, much of it had to do with his wife's refusal to throw in the towel. That and the performances make for a lasting experience, despite the nagging feeling there's a little more to the man than what we got.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's an early scene in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) where washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) runs down a list of potential names to replace an injured cast member in his ambitious Broadway mounting of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." And they're all actual big name stars whose commitments to their blockbuster superhero franchises make them unavailable, even if the underlying feeling is that they'd never do it anyway. Twenty years ago Riggan was one of them, riding high on the success of his iconic Birdman role in a franchise he milked for three movies before the word "franchise" even entered the cinematic lexicon. But Michael Keaton is no Riggan Thomson. Well, at least not in reality. He is in the sense that he completely inhabits the headspace of this strange, self-obsessed character in the throes of a mental breakdown. Keaton was the only choice for this role not because he once played a superhero, but because he managed to escape just in time. One or two more Batman movies and this could have easily been a different conversation.

By all accounts of the man, the performance Keaton gives here is actually a massive stretch, as he never seemed at all vain, hung up on public opinion, or insecurely protective of his legacy. And he certainly doesn't appear to be a nervous wreck. But boy has he been missed. It almost seems unfair to affix the "comeback" label onto a performer who has been working consistently, if under the radar, for years, but we're selfish like that. In a good way. It isn't wrong to see our favorite performers being given the best material that will bring them the most respect and adulation. One of the big takeaways to come from the this film's release over the past few weeks is seeing everyone come to the realization that there are few actors more deserving of it than Keaton. It's something we've always known, but never really publicly acknowledged until now. Besides being a fascinating and funny meta commentary on the entertainment business, Birdman works as a satirical tragicomedy about a man who not only craves that validation, but desperately needs it for his life to mean anything.

On the surface, Riggan writing, directing and starring in a Raymond Carver adaptation appears to be a case of a faded movie star pathetically using Broadway to establish himself as a serious artist and gain credibility with the masses. Beneath the surface, that's also exactly what it is. And that deep, distinctive voice he keeps hearing in his head isn't afraid to tell him so. It's the voice of Birdman, telling him what a loser he is, and based on the evidence we have, he might not be far off. We find out he's already wrecked his marriage and career and now he's wrecking his play, produced by best friend and lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis). His spunky, sarcastic daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, serves as his assistant while he's joined on stage by girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) and her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), called in as a last minute replacement.

With Mike, Riggan meets his match in a performer who proves to be even more self-absorbed than he is, and about ten times more difficult and obnoxious, hijacking the entire production to basically go into business for himself. But critics and audiences love him, which proves to be important as they struggle through previews and wait for the inevitable axe to fall from influential New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). It's make or break time for Riggan, who must also contend with the arrival of his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and Birdman, who proves to not only be a voice in his head, but an actual superhero alter-ego with powers of telekinesis and levitation.

Form rarely informs function as it does here, with a technical approach that should generate as much discussion as the story or performances. Iñárritu's whole movie appears to have been filmed in one unbroken take, as scenes don't exactly end but rather bleed into each other as the camera follows the actors, swooping in (like a bird?) from one area of the theater to another, or even out onto the street when necessary. It'll be bizarre and sometimes off-putting for some, but there's no question it injects the action with this breakneck pace and makes us feel as if we're in the theater, backstage spectators to a train wreck we shouldn't be seeing. With most films there's at least a moment or two when you're taken out of it, made fully aware you're just engaging with a piece of entertainment. This shooting style makes such a moment of pause or reflection on the audience's part impossible. You're just completely lost in it, submerged too far down the rabbit hole to even contemplate the implications until the credits roll.

Hilariously sabotaging rehearsals and previews, without giving a second thought to that what's left of Riggan's career rests on a vanity project, Norton's Mike is a terror. If anything, he thinks he's doing him a solid by royally screwing with it. And it's sadder still that he could actually be right. We see many scenes from the play and even certain ones multiple times, but it's because of Norton that each one is more hilarious and energetic than the last. Whether Iñárritu's trying to play with the media's perception of Norton being "difficult" in the same way his script toys with Keaton's image, the actor far transcends that in-joke to deliver a performance that somehow, someway makes this unlikable jerk a relatable and complicated person. We anticipate every bit of mischief he causes since the movie feels most alive when he's sharing scenes with Keaton, who unlike his bizarro onscreen counterpart, has no problem ceding the spotlight to his co-star. Norton plays such a strong antagonist that the movie briefly suffers when he disappears and the third act kind of fly off the rails, if such a description can even apply to a project like this. Let's just say it doesn't fly off the rails the way you expect it to.

If the production's really all about Riggan, than the movie's all about Keaton, with the actor reminding us how equally adept he is at tackling anything thrown at him, whether it be comedic or dramatic. Here he gets the chance to do both, and a whole lot more, all at once. He's always been tough to categorize and even cast because of that flexibility, so this ends up being the perfect outlet for a performer whose onscreen persona always seemed a bit too crazy and dangerous to fit into the box of a conventional leading man. With this role, he finally doesn't have to be pigeonholed like that, given the opportunity to play a difficult, often unlikable protagonist wrestling with crippling fears and insecurities.

There are those trademark Keaton moments where he flies off the handle and gets that manic look in his eyes, but his best scenes are the quieter, brutally honest ones Riggan shares with his ex-wife and daughter, the latter played by Emma Stone as you've never seen her before. Noticeably thinner an paler with her giant eyes eating up every corner of the frame, it's about as far a departure for the actress as it gets, abandoning her "good girl" persona to embody the angry and bitingly sarcastic Sam, whose real job is mostly to keep her father's raging id in check. And that she does, even when he doesn't want to hear it, facing off with Keaton and Norton and more than holding her own in an edgy performance few probably thought she had in her. In less showier roles, Watts and Riseborough are destined to be underappreciated, especially Riseborough, who's a feisty wonder in her scenes opposite Keaton. And who thought Zalifiankis would ever play the most reasonable character in a comedy? 

This is a film that makes no bones about calling attention to itself at every turn and is completely in love with its strangeness, rarely hesitating to remind you of it in every scene. Tolerance for that unsubtle approach will vary, causing a debate as to whether all these techniques truly inform the story or Iñárritu's showing off. It's probably a little bit of both, but there's no denying those creative choices make for a far more intriguing experience than if it were presented as a relatively straightforward dramedy about an actor coming to terms with his past and ego. A performance showcase above all else, it can't be a coincidence that three stars of huge superhero movie franchises were cast in it, and as someone completely burnt out by the genre, it was thrilling to see it skewered, while still being dealt a compelling character study in the midst of the craziness. Birdman almost defies categorization, as it takes a while to really wrap your head around, assuming you're even intended to. And that's always a great thing.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Million Dollar Arm

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Bill Paxton, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Pitobash Tripathy, Rey Maualuga
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: PG

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

It's entirely possible you've seen or heard Disney's Million Dollar Arm being described as "Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire." While that's understandable, a better comparison might be to feel-good throwback sports movies such as The Rookie, Miracle, Remember The Titans, Invincible, and yes, maybe even The Blind Side. Of course, the big worry going into something that wears its heart this proudly on its sleeve is that it will come off too syrupy or more closely resembling a Hallmark movie of the week than a legitimate entry in the sports film genre. I can't claim this completely avoids that, but it's smart and enjoyable enough to make us fondly remember when these types of pictures were released regularly and the public actually went out of their way to see them. Lately, it appears they're having a bit of of a resurgence, as this, along with the slightly more cerebral Draft Day, deserves mention alongside the better ones. It's also well anchored by an actor few would expect to see in a Disney project, marking a highly anticipated big screen transition with his first leading role.

Big shot Los Angeles based sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) has recently fallen on tough times, having gone out on his own with partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) to form their own fledgling agency. A dearth of clients and a failure to sign star football player Popo Vanuatu (Rey Maualuga) have left them bleeding money and in search of a game-changing idea. That idea comes to J.B. one night when flipping channels between cricket and Britain's Got Talent. Identifying an untapped market for baseball in India, J.B. comes up with the plan of holding a talent competition there called "Million Dollar Arm," in which contestants are scored on the speed and accuracy of their pitches, with the two winners receiving prize money and a trip to the U.S. to be trained as major league prospects.

But when eventual winners Rinku Singh (Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal) are flown to America to train with USC pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), J. B. realizes he has a near impossible task ahead of him in both preparing them for the big leagues and helping them adjust to their new surroundings. With his business continuing to tank, he skirts responsibility on the latter, leaving his chatty tenant Brenda (Lake Bell) as their only moral support. With the deadline to have them ready fast approaching, J.B. may have to start realigning his personal and professional priorities, for both his sake and that of these kids.

Having limited familiarity with the true story from which Tom McCarthy's script is based, it's hard to say just how far it veers from the facts, but there was never really a moment where I was shaking my head with incredulity at the unfolding events. The movie wisely doesn't try to pretend these young guys are superstars in the making who happen to be "discovered" via the competition. They can basically throw a couple of wild pitches at a little over 80 miles per hour and that's it. They're pretty terrible and actually remain so throughout the film, seemingly struggling to grasp basic mechanics even as they put in as much effort as can reasonably be asked of them. This is a relief since it's apparent early on that this will achieve its PG Disney movie status with tone and presentation rather than concocting an unrealistic fantasy out of a true story.

Everything is sanitized, but not insultingly so, deserving credit for not ignoring the fact that these two kids are being taken from poverty and will experience extreme culture shock upon their arrival. Some of these moments are played for laughs (not knowing how an elevator works) while others (a party gone bad) are treated a little more seriously, with director Craig Gillespie skillfully alternating between the two. The meat of the story is not only Rinku and Dinesh learning to come into their own and succeed in an unfamiliar world, but J.B. morally evolving enough to actually think about some other than himself and his company's bottom line. These are obvious messages, but well delivered nonetheless. And for those wondering, J.B's extreme narcissism, womanizing and somewhat similar profession do invite modern day Don Draper comparisons. There's just no way around it, which isn't necessarily such a bad thing for the film.

Hamm has always seemed like a movie star despite only appearing primarily on TV, and that charismatic  quality is only magnified by the very essence of the character he plays on Mad Men. With that series winding down, the notion that he'd be making the jump was already a foregone conclusion so we may as well just prepare ourselves for the inevitability that none of the material he's given moving forward will contain the depth and complexity we've been spoiled with over the past 8 years. We get one of the better scenarios here, with leading role that plays to his strengths as a performer, while giving moviegoers who haven't seen the show a good inkling of why he's a big deal. Hamm can probaly do this in his sleep, but it's a credit to him that he doesn't and finds ways to constantly keep us interested in his character's rather obvious arc.

One actor who actually does give a performance in his sleep is Alan Arkin,who plays a grumpy, aging major league scout constantly dozing off during try-outs. Considering how often he's been sleeping through this grumpy old man role lately it was nice to see him just go ahead and literally make it official. But his presence only belies the fact that this cast is deceptively stacked with talent, as both Sharma and Patel are extremely likable in the face of mostly unfounded criticism about this being another Hollywood story of a white guy coming to the rescue. They mostly prevent that hijacking each time they're on screen. While Lake Bell's Brenda is blatantly being set up as the quirky, free-spirited love interest for Hamm's character, it's hard coming up with another actress who would have been as enjoyable a fit. She makes it something and isn't underutilized, despite the standard girlfriend role being more than a few levels lower than she deserves. Amit Rohan steals some scenes as the kids' interpreter, working as comic relief that's more amusing than irritating, at least when taken in small doses.

Interestingly enough, ESPN's polarizing Bill Simmons is listed as a producer on the project and as much as it looked from its trailer like the kind of movie he would mock on his podcast, it isn't. And he does know sports films, so his involvement, no matter how limited, could have only been a plus from where I sit. Despite sharing a setting, an actor and even a composer (A.R. Rahman) with Slumdog Millionaire, it didn't really remind me of that as much as it did of the story behind the making of it, with poverty-stricken kids being uprooted from their home country and being thrown into the fast-paced lifestyle of America without preparation. It's still mostly mainstream fluff,  but it's good fluff that gets little things right and doesn't insult our intelligence. Disney has this uplifting sports movie formula down pat, but it's a rare case where predictability can be somewhat comforting.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Gone Girl

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Casey Wilson, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward, Emily Ratajkowski, Lisa Banes, David Clennon, Scoot McNairy, Boyd Holbrook, Lola Kirke
Running Time: 145 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

There's a certain amount of baggage that comes with arriving to a movie's party late. And while lateness, by today's standards, constitutes only about a week or two, it takes mere minutes for reactions to seep out and spoilers to leak. It seems in only a matter of hours, a movie's critical and commercial prospects are already written. A hardcover of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl sits on my bookshelf still unopened, with the plan always being to dive in only after I've seen the film. But trying to go in cold is a pointless exercise, as it wasn't long before I accidentally found out more than I wanted to know. And that's tricky, because with this film, ANYTHING is more than you want to know. But it's not because it's some twisty thriller that heavily relies on plot, as could have been with a director other than David Fincher behind the controls.

There are twists and turns in this for sure, but it never feels like it's at the service of something other than exploring the psyches and motivations of these characters, as well as the disturbing, sickening corrosion of outwardly normal relationships. It's easy seeing how such a dark movie has managed to strike this universal chord, but explaining how without spoiling it becomes trickier. What it will do is likely scare anyone in a committed relationship, and maybe even those who aren't .

On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, Missouri bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. Signs of a struggle and blood at the scene shift a potential missing person case to a murder investigation with Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) Officer James Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) honing in on Nick as their primary suspect. And apparently for good reason. Interspersed  flashbacks and voiceovers from Amy's diary reveal how they first met and became engaged in New York. He, a laid back, corn fed mid westerner. She, an aloof, Type A city girl whose wealthy parents (Lisa Banes and David Clennon) created a popular "Amazing Amy" book series based on her life, or at least their rose-colored version of it.

We slowly discover why they returned to his Missouri hometown and what eventually caused the deterioration of their marriage. With evidence mounting and Nick crumbling under intense media scrutiny, he's rapidly losing the support of everyone but his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), signaling it just might be time for him to lawyer up. All that can be safely said is that Amy's disappearance and potential murder isn't the mystery it appears to be.

"Amazing" isn't likely to be the first adjective anyone besides Nick would use in describing the ice cold Amy, as it's difficult to decipher what he initially saw in her that went beyond looks and a somewhat alluring, sophisticated presence. For him, it was enough. Then again, we're given the impression she never really saw it in herself either, always failing to measure up to the idealized fictional book character her parents created and profited from. This could be why something seems really off with this woman right off the bat, making her almost instantly unlikable and aligning our sympathies with him before even knowing the full details of their relationship. Early flashbacks establish in our minds he's too nice a guy for her and will probably be eaten alive. Until we find out he's no boy scout himself, wrestling with his own issues after they've tie the knot. Our allegiances shift back and forth, with only Amy's diary as our guide post, despite her reliability always being in doubt.

That Amy's played by English actress Rosamund Pike is important in so far that no one seems to have any idea who she is, even with a handful of major screen credits to her name over a decade-long career. I'd have trouble naming a single one of them, which is exactly the point. There's a blankness and anonymity to her that Fincher uses to his advantage, even going so far as to claim in interviews it's one of the primary reasons he cast her. We know literally nothing about the actress, which lets no preconceived notions in, allowing Flynn's story to be projected on a clean slate.

If ever there was a case where a big name actress wouldn't work it's here since objectivity (or at least the illusion of it) needs to be retained. It's a casting choice in the vain of mysterious blondes like Grace Kelly or Kim Novak that would make Hitchcock proud, but Pike does the rest of the work, which is more than we imagine it will be when the film begins. And what is "amazing" about Amy is how much life the actress breaths into the character with often only her eyes. Regardless of anyone's familiarity with Pike, this does at least feel like we're seeing her on screen for the first time, with Fincher using that anonymity as a weapon to club unsuspecting audiences.

How Affleck's image and persona is subverted and twisted is an even better example of how Fincher (much like Kubrick before him) uses his actors, transforming their real or perceived weaknesses into strengths that fit the story. Correctly considered a superior director than actor now, Affleck the performer is at his best when playing against his pumped up superstar persona and inhabiting desperate characters whose backs are against the wall. Seemingly overnight, Nick becomes an infamous celebrity and proves as ill equipped at it as anyone else would be in his situation. Unfortunately in his case, this behavior makes him comes across as a guilty sociopath when filtered and magnified through the media's glaring lenses.

Watching Affleck squirm, panic and appear dumbfounded at each new development that further stacks the deck against Nick becomes as exciting as watching a sports event in which you haven't a clue of the outcome. At times it's even darkly hilarious watching this guy's reactions and comparing it to how you think someone in his shoes would behave. It's understandable the police immediately suspect him, and use his apparent cooperation as a means of manipulation. Kim Dickens is perfect as the cop who's perfectly logical and professional. She's really just doing her job, only exceptionally well.    

The worst thing about Neil Patrick Harris' performance as Amy's ex-boyfriend Desi is that I can't address it, as revealing anything would be a spoiler. What can be addressed is that his portion of the film is the strongest and most suspenseful, which is really saying something. His total screen time probably doesn't exceed any more than 10 minutes, but those curious to see how NPH would fare in a seriously dramatic role guided by a top tier filmmaker should prepare to be blown away. Consider this restitution for the actor having to suffer through the final season of How I Met Your Mother and a thrill for viewers getting to see him earn an opportunity he's deserved for a long time. And he absolutely nails it.

The eclectic casting even extends to Tyler Perry as high powered defense attorney Tanner Bolt. Yes, that Tyler Perry. Again a small role, but he's superb in it, proving to be the eyes and ears of the audience sitting in disbelief and shock at what's unfolding. In the midst of  this craziness, he's our voice of reason. Toward the end of the film he has a hilarious line that's just classic and will surely be quoted for years to come because of how perfectly it summarizes Nick's mess.

This third collaboration between Fincher and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is by far their most unusual in that there's a lot lurking beneath the surface, more specifically these weird, unnerving electronic sounds that fade into the background only to kick up again and accelerate during pivotal scenes, ratcheting up the suspense. It works, creating a nearly constant sense of impending doom in even the quietest moments. The tense atmosphere extends not only to the story and music, but its look as cinematographer Jeff Croneweth manages to makes even daytime scenes feel and appear as if they're occurring in the dead of night. You can almost think of Gone Girl as the twisted cousin of Zodiac and The Game, with the former's theme of obsession meeting the latter's clues and puzzles that similarly constitute the "game" destroying Nick's life.

The last act makes you wonder how something so sadistic could still be this much fun to watch without compromising any of the seriousness. This wasn't necessarily going to be a slam dunk for Fincher, since his adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, also based on a best selling fictional crime novel, was a rare case of him being dragged down by the material. But this is nothing of the sort, instead returning the director to top form. It's impossible to know how much of the depth was fine-tuned by him and what originated from Flynn's screenplay, but the two prove to be a formidable creative alliance just the same.

There comes a point where it seems the narrative has written itself into a corner, with seemingly only one way out. "They wouldn't do THAT? Would they?" It's an ending that justifiably leaves you talking and thinking. Other directors would have just let the credits roll, but Fincher's smart enough to hang around a while and let the characters have that conversation themselves, and rub our noses in the aftermath. Just the idea that we never truly know who we're with and reveal only the parts of ourselves we want is frightening enough, but this ratchets it up to the most extreme level. After watching it, you'll come away contemplating a whole new meaning of being "trapped" in a marriage.