Considering the pedigree involveda revered filmmaker in Brian De Palma, an A-list cast of award-winning talent, a production team of some of the best in the business, a best-selling author whose novel it is based upon"The Black Dahlia" is a disaster the likes of which have not been seen in possibly several years. The experience of watching it is actually quite amazing. The film has been advertised and marketed as a prestigious true crime story about the investigation into would-be actress Elizabeth Short's infamous 1947 murder. Coming from the director of some of the best and most stylish cinematic thrillers of our time (1976's "Carrie," 1980's "Dressed to Kill," 1981's "Blow Out
," 1983's "Scarface"), a fan of De Palma's would naturally not expect anything less. What the viewer gets instead is a prime camp classic in the makinga motion picture of such awe-inspiring badness, of such convoluted and incoherent plotting, of such ill-advised acting, of such uneven technical attributes, and of such gut-bustingly artificial scripting, that it is more reminiscent of a sequel to "The Naked Gun" than a legitimate thriller to be taken seriously. Indeed, "The Black Dahlia" achieves the rarest of feats in that it is an endurance test to reach the end credits and yet is fall-down-laughing hysterical at the same time.
On January 15, 1947, aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short's disemboweled and mutilated corpse was found on the edge of a vacant lot. Her murder was one of the grisliest in Hollywood history, and the mysteries surrounding her death led to a tireless investigation that provided few answers. In the mind of author James Ellroy and adapting screenwriter Josh Friedman (2005's "War of the Worlds
"), the case is but a jumping-off point for a fictional crime yarn about two hard-boiled L.A. detectives, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), both of them ex-boxers, who are assigned to the Elizabeth Short case. As they go about sniffing for clues and interviewing acquaintances of the victim, another plot thread rises to the forefront involving dirty dealings, stolen money, rescued prostitutes, police force corruption, and a loony-ass rich family who may know more about Elizabeth Short's tragic end than they're letting on. Meanwhile, a sort of love triangle forms between Bucky, Lee, and Lee's glam girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) that eventually receives a fourth wheel with the appearance of vampish Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), an Elizabeth Short lookalike whom Bucky gets involved with despite his better judgment.
"The Black Dahlia" tries hardtoo hardto be a 1940s-style film noir
, but ends up bearing an uncanny resemblance to a comedy spoof. The jazzy, overblown music by Mark Isham (2006's "Invincible
") underscores every scene with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and deserves to be heckled. The self-serious dialogue, interspersed with goofy lines and goofier story turns one can only assume are knowing comic relief, is not only tonally destructible, but also an offensive mockery of a sad, unsolved real-life crime. It is okay for history to be rewritten within a fictional framework, but it is important to at least respect the victims involved. Director Brian De Palma does not. The archival footage of Elizabeth Short's (Mia Kirshner) screen tests and other film recordings is dramatically shattering by itself, depicting a fresh-faced ingénue being used in degrading ways inside and outside the Hollywood industry, but it is at the service of patently laughable surrounding subplots that have next to no interest in Elizabeth Short or her case. Short isn't even mentioned until roughly the forty-five minute mark, and even then Bucky's and Lee's investigation is barely touched upon until the third act.
The rest of the time the picture is abysmally wallowing in Lee's internal collapse and guilt over past actions that will be left unmentioned, as well as losing its intelligibility amid a hodgepodge of supporting characters, each one more ridiculous than the last. The comedic high point on this count is Madeleine's boozy, loopy mother, Ramona. The performance from Fiona Shaw (2004's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
"), as Ramona, is so over-the-top that she chews up the scenery, swallows, regurgitates it, and then devours the vomit of said scenery. Never before in a so-called serious film has a well-behaved adult theater audience collectively chortled as much as they did during "The Black Dahlia." Lacking a single genuine moment of human emotion outside of the black-and-white footage of Elizabeth Short herself, the movie careens wildly across of plethora of unequivocally confused plot points and tones, all of them conceived by either Brian De Palma (2002's "Femme Fatale
") during a mental collapse, or a talent-deprived first-time filmmaker who has stolen De Palma's name.
When was the last time such a sprawling cast of great character performers been this far off the mark? None of them become their characters so much as they look like amateurs playing dress-up. Josh Hartnett (2004's "Wicker Park
") is still too boyish to pass for a tough authority figure, especially one who is supposed to also be an ex-boxer, and his modern looks don't fit in with the old-Hollywood setting. Scarlett Johansson, whom I touted as the most talented actress of her age group working today in my recent review of "Scoop
," simply looks lost and bewildered. As temptress Kay Lake, who isn't shy about letting her attraction to both Bucky and Lee be known, Johansson is given a nothing part that calls for her to look seductive and, like every other character, smoke a lot. During one long section where the narrative jumps the railing and heads in superfluous alternate directions, she disappears for so long that you almost forget she's in it.
As Lee, Aaron Eckhart, so brilliant in 2006's "Thank You for Smoking
," is a snooze. His relationship to Kay makes zero impression, and the random arguments they get into feel like awkward play-fights between unskilled middle school drama students. Finally, Hilary Swank (2004's "Million Dollar Baby
") saunters onto the screen as femme fatale
Madeleine Linscott, acting like a deranged amalgamation of Katharine Hepburn, late-era Judy Garland, and Faye Dunaway via Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest." Swank is consistently funny; the problem is she's not supposed to be. Showing up very briefly but outacting all of the bigger names is Mia Kirshner (2001's "Not Another Teen Movie
"), who indelibly plays the Black Dahlia of the title and gets no reward in return for her efforts.
There are two semi-inspired scenes in "The Black Dahlia," although both stylistically stick out like a sore thumb since the remaining 115 minutes are embarrassingly inept. One is an elaborate crane shot that swoops across a city street and above a building to reveal a passerby discovering the body of Elizabeth Short, and another is a sequence set on a multi-level staircase that simultaneously copies shamelessly off of De Palma's "Dressed to Kill" and "The Untouchables." They are aesthetically competent, but nonetheless pale imitations of better moments in better movies.
The rest of "The Black Dahlia" is just plain shockingly awful. There's a stereotypically garish trip to a lesbian bar (set on the corner of a bustling Hollywood street, no less), where a scantily-clad orgy of women wriggle around a crooning k.d. Lang. There's a sex scene between Bucky and Kay that culminates with Kay's blouse being ripped open, the buttons popping off around her, followed by a table full of food being thrown recklessly across the room. There's an overwrought narration by Josh Hartnett that sounds like it should be coming from the mouth of Leslie Nielsen's Lt. Frank Drebin. There's a climactic reveal of the fictional murderer of Elizabeth Short that is mystifyingly thrown in as an afterthought. Heck, even the poorly chosen period costumes are laugh-inducing and the sets (Bulgaria standing in for Los Angeles) look like they were made of foam rubber, in danger of toppling down around the actors at any given moment. If "The Black Dahlia" is good for anything besides a hearty chuckle, it could be used in the future as a case study for how wrong every last element of a major studio project and star vehicle can truly go. Words cannot possibly do justice to what a total monstrosity this film is. One thing is certain, however; star or not before she died, Elizabeth Short deserved better treatment than what "The Black Dahlia" rancidly serves up.