'In Time' Not Worth Yours
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Packed with provocative Orwellian ideas, "In Time" falls flat when it comes to execution. Sold as a sci-fi thriller, the film's full of footraces and car chases but succumbs to narrative inertia, helpless to whip up momentum or tripwire suspense. The acting runs from predictable to wooden to just plain silly. Dead air hangs between stars Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, who, cast as System-shaking rebels, don't come anywhere near the hot, driven charisma of Warren Beatty's Clyde and Faye Dunaway's Bonnie.
Short on substance and style, this much-anticipated movie by Andrew Niccol, writer-director of "Gattaca" (1997), might serve as a PSA for Occupy Wall Street protesters. Darwinian capitalism still runs amok in Niccol's brave new world, but now time is literally money. (In "Gattaca," superior DNA was coin of the realm.) At 25, you stop aging but your doomsday clock starts running. Green digits flash eerily on every forearm, signaling how much currency you've got banked in your body. That number rises and falls, depending on what you spend. The going rate for a cup of java is 20 minutes; a bus ride costs two hours.
Flush with centuries, the 1% are essentially immortal, while 99% of the citizenry lose time fast, dropping dead on slum streets every day as the Haves deliberately inflate the cost of living: "That the few may live, many must die." The film's dystopian vision indicts economic inequities, but it also aims to say something about the quality of human life, whether desperately savored on the run or gone stale after too many decades as a lotus-eater.
Such a world should be electric with terror and desperation. If you are constantly on the edge of having your heart stop -- your "clock cleaned" -- and the countdown was right there on your arm, wouldn't you go a little nutso? But "In Time" can't seem to get under the skin of that itchy existential horror. When Timberlake's mom (Olivia Wilde) comes up short on bus fare -- it's doubled overnight -- the woman with little over an hour on her meter marathons towards home, two hours away, and a temporal top-up from her son. This should be the stuff of nightmare, fleeing one's mortality through a deserted, ochre-colored nighttown. But mom's (Logan's?) run looks pedestrian, robbed of urgency despite a sound track that insists we panic.
Every time these temporal countdowns threaten -- during high-stakes poker games, bouts of arm-wrestling, theft by "Clockwork Orange" street thugs (led by Alex Pettyfer, drooling evil) -- the punch is pulled. Oddly, Niccol doesn't seem to have a clue how to mine dread and anxiety out of that greenly flickering readout of a human lifespan. And "In Time" doesn't even exploit the queasiness of a bevy of grandmas, mothers and offspring who all look 25.
When working-class hunk Will Salas (Timberlake) comes into a slew of time courtesy of a suicidal millionaire, he invades the time zone of the rich ("New Greenwich"!). There, at a casino, he wins more centuries from billionaire Philippe Weis (aptly, "Mad Men"'s ultra-cool and slimy Vincent Kartheiser) and goes swimming with the guy's bored, but only superficially rebellious, daughter (Seyfried).
That dramatic nighttime dunk in the ocean, out behind the Weis manor, should look grand, should pulse with visual and emotional passion. After all, it's an existential baptism for Will and Sylvia, their first mutual immersion in outlaw experience; it foreshadows their coming flight from the trap of time and socio-economic dead-ends. Forget that. The surging ocean soon morphs into a Playboy mansion grotto, mist rising from what looks like a hot tub. Transformative power peters out -- this movie's problem across the board.
After this narrative turning-point, "In Time" mostly wanders in meaningless circles, punctuated by inane dialogue like "This is a mess." "Welcome to my world." Will and Sylvia take to robbing time-banks and distributing their loot to the poor Robin Hood-style. The (lukewarm) lovers are pursued hither and thither by a Javert-like Time-Keeper (badly used Cillian Murphy, whose face, scoured clean of any expression, is shot pointlessly in CU, again and again and again). What's driving this poorly compensated cop? Who knows -- although Murphy mumbles something about having been on the job for 50 years. What, no pension, just a gold watch?
One last word: I've been hard on Seyfried's guppy looks and lack of talent before. But Niccol really does her wrong in this film. Framing (and accentuating) her bulging eyes and Angelina Jolie lips with long bangs and flippy pageboy, he's clearly trying to evoke Anna Karina, Godard's luminous muse in New Wave classics like "Band of Outsiders" and "Pierrot Le Fou." The result is grotesque.
"We look cute together," giggles Timberlake's chic moll-doll, as she and her Belmondo wannabe head out to rob another bank. And, really, who needs brains -- or smart sci-fi -- when you've got cute!
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.