Cameron Diaz and James Marsden face a terrible moral dilemma in “The Box”: Press a button on a mysterious container, they’ll get $1 million – and someone will die.
What button, on whose box, did Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko,” “Southland Tales”) push to get the money to make this preposterous thriller?
Kelly adapted this mess from Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button,” previously the basis for an episode of the 1980s TV revival of “The Twilight Zone.”
With its O. Henry-style gotcha ending, Matheson’s story is perfect for “The Twilight Zone.” But when Kelly reaches that surprise climax from the short story, he’s sadly just getting started.
Diaz and Marsden play Norma and Arthur Lewis, a Virginia couple living a decent life with their young son in 1976. Arthur is a NASA engineer, while Norma is a private-school teacher with a bad Southern accent that comes and goes and a gimpy foot resulting from medical negligence.
Just as some financial setbacks hit the family, ominous stranger Arlington Steward (Frank Langella, stuck with a horrible facial disfigurement from a lightning strike) turns up with the box, the button and the deal.
Kelly piles on government conspiracies, covert abductions, an epidemic of nosebleeds, mobs of automatons controlled by forces beyond human comprehension, and quotes from Arthur C. Clarke and Jean-Paul Sartre. And worse still: awful 1970s plaid pants.
The hammy dialogue and hammier performances provoke laughs as the film shambles toward its overdue demise. This “Box” is best left unopened.