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Judge Bill Gibron • Location: Tampa, FL
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Cut and Waste
September 26th, 2006 11:02AM

Here is what Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia is not. It is NOT a movie about the infamous Los Angeles murder of wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short. No, that heinous crime with its Hollywood Babylon imagery is merely a shuttled aside subplot that barely gets narrative recognition until the final 15 minutes of the story. It is also not a crackerjack look at California corruption ala LA Confidential. Indeed, one would not be remiss in calling this inconsequential effort an overreaching retread. The Black Dahlia is also not Brian DePalma's worst work. That title is still reserved for Raising Cain, or perhaps Mission to Mars. As a matter of fact, in many significant ways, this is a revivalist retro return to form. All throughout the near two hours of overdone plotting, DePalma offers up recognizable highlights of his four decades behind the camera. It's like a visual greatest hits package, referencing everything from Murder A La Mod to Scarface. Even through the occasionally mannered acting and the lack of any real secure cinematic focus, DePalma's lens never lets him down.

Of course, this also means that The Black Dahlia is not a wholly successful effort. As a matter of fact, it hardly even comes close. It is a lax drama, a slight suspense effort and a thoroughly uninteresting mystery. There is nothing present of Ellroy's hard-boiled dialogue – as channeled by Josh Freidman's incessantly convoluted script – or in the human dynamic between the characters to get us rooting for either vengeance or vindication. Short, positioned like a Greek chorus ghost inside an investigation that really doesn't care what she has to say, comes across as an unsympathetic combination of fragile and floozy, a victim with her eventual fate written right across her about to be abused faηade. While the manner in which DePalma introduces us to the material is quite novel (one of those operatic, strategically staged set pieces that the director does so well), the rest of her case is a combination of whodunit and who cares.

Another problem plaguing The Black Dahlia is its lack of likeable, or even dramatically recognizable, characters. Leads Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson are the worst kind of narrative placeholders – individuals elevated to the status of human exposition engines, employed only when the story needs another subplot, or an additional tidbit to push us over into the next knotty situation. As Short, Mia Kirshner is given very little to do except play off of DePalma's 'screen test' gag – open eyes glued to the camera as if she can somehow pass her entire soul through its carefully ground glass. Acquitting themselves quite nicely are Josh Harnett (who could easily play Dick Tracy, should a studio find a need to revisit that classic carton character – and Warren Beatty effort – anytime soon) and Hilary Swank, though the two time Oscar winner is more vocal inflection than three dimensional diva. With a supporting cast that never optically updates the period piece parameters, and a few flashy outbursts of filmic flair, DePalma had some appealing elements at play.

All noir novelty aside however, The Black Dahlia ends up deteriorating just when it should be building up a heady helping of sleazy suspense. Ellroy obviously relishes the crooked realities of 1940s LA, and had Freidman found a way to make all the scattered pieces fit together like a fine tuned murder mystery mechanism, we'd have yet another example of post-modern moviemaking bettering the almost unbeatable days of Tinsel Town past. But even with all its visual panache and big budget details, what we actually end up with is five different stories all struggling for recognition. None of them end well, a couple complicate matters more than they help, and in the end, we feel like the best aspect of the narrative – the vivisection death of a less than innocent female – has been relegated to an annoying afterthought. After years of hoping for a real return to his sensational '70s glory days, DePalma fans will simply have to wait. The Black Dahlia is not a black mark on the talent track record of anyone involved. Yet with such a potentially powerful story, it should have been something very special.

6 out of 10

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