As eye candy, The Fall is stunning. As a fairy tale for adults, it earns its ready comparison to Pan's Labyrinth.
But the director of The Cell has cooked up a visual feast so rich it almost lets us forget that it's served on the paper-plate-thin plot of a fable, a tale told by a movie stuntman to the broken-armed child who shares his ”accident“ (she fell, too) in a 1920s Los Angeles hospital.
Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) is an immigrant child who tumbled while helping her family pick fruit. Her English wouldn't be the best, even if she weren't just 5 years old. Roy (Lee Pace) is the handsome, friendly movie stuntman who takes an interest in her, or at least her mobility. He is confined to his bed. She has the run of the place.
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He begins to tell her a story and when she complains, ”I don't like pirates,“ he edits it. Every day, he spins more of the yarn, pulling Alexandria into a world of heroes, all of whom have sworn revenge on the ”Evil Governor Odious.“
A masked bandit (Emil Hostina), a widowed Indian (Jeetu Verma), an Italian ”explosives expert“ (Robin Smith), an ex-slave warrior (Marcus Wesley) and none other than Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) make their way through a fantasy land of deserts and desert isles, of orange sand dunes, grand Indo-Islamic palaces and black-cowled storm troopers who bark like dogs as they block our heroes' quest or hunt them down.
There's a touch of The Princess Bride to this as Roy talks his characters into impossible corners and then (often with the 5-year-old rewriting) talks them out of it. But this is that trickiest of fantasies, the ”adult fairy tale,“ so blood is spilled (not enough to warrant the R rating) and darker themes and schemes play out in Roy's motives for keeping Alexandria in his thrall.
A vivid slow-motion, black-and-white prologue has hinted why Roy is in the hospital, and visits from movie business colleagues fill in those blanks. Alexandria's own unpleasant past is touched on as well.
One-named director Tarsem (he used to go by Tarsem Singh) weaves a fanciful tribute to early film stunts in the opening and closing, something he could have made more of as his movie bogs down in the third act, as we get into romantic treachery and meet a most forgettable screen villain.
The four-handed screenplay has dashes of period-perfect wit. Roy doesn't know the difference between East Indian and Old West Indian, referring to a character's wife as a ”squaw.“ A skinny ”mystic“ is introduced and dismissed by the heroes, until he single-handedly wipes out a legion of the brawny henchmen of Governor Odious. The heroes have underestimated the mystic.
”Undoubtedly, you have a flair for war-mongering.“
Still, as the seriousness of the real world intrudes, some of the wit of the fantasy world evaporates.
Cutting-edge filmmakers David Fincher (Zodiac) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) ”present“ this movie, putting their names on it to ensure that this surreal, trippy 2006 trek made it to the screen, e_SDHpdespite having no stars and no obvious selling points. They must have been as swept up in the amazing images, the eye-popping locations (a real ”Blue City“ in India) that Tarsem and his crew captured, as anyone else.
But that's the trouble with candy, the eye kind or the tooth-decaying variety. It's only after you've made a glutton of yourself that you realize you haven't devoured anything particularly filling.