Every so often a movie comes along that I’m told is both bad and confusing, but when I see the film for myself, I’ve no trouble following it and actually find it reasonably enjoyable. Iain Softley’s Inkheart is exactly such a movie. I’m not making a case that it’s a great picture—or that Brendan Fraser has suddenly become either a wonderful actor or a terrific action star. As a movie, it has its fair share of flaws. As an actor, so does Fraser. Yeah, he was great in Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998) and very good in Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American (2002). And he’s innately likable. But he’s also a bit awkward and stiff, and possesses an apparent penchant for accepting any script that comes his way.
Inkheart is based on a popular book by the German writer Cornelia Funke. The premise is that certain people—called Silvertongues—have the ability to bring characters (and apparently events and inanimate objects, as well) from books into reality. The catch is that whenever a character crosses into our world, someone from our world crosses into the world of the book. I’ve no idea how this is handled in the source book since I haven’t read it, but this is an area where screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Robots) runs into trouble, since that catch is applied in the film in a pretty haphazard manner. More to the point, it’s applied in a manner that can be viewed as “only when it’s essential to the plot.” But regardless of the somewhat muddled application of the source book’s rules, the basic concept of Inkheart is intriguing and developed with some degree of cleverness that just barely misses that sense of postmodern smugness, which is a good thing.
The setup is solid. Mo Folchart (Fraser) inadvertently sends his wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory, Eragon), into a book called Inkheart while reading it aloud. In so doing, he also causes characters from that book—Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) and Capricorn (Andy Serkis)—to enter our world. Nine years pass. In the intervening years, the book Inkheart has become increasingly difficult to find (which the film explains). Mo’s pursuit of the book—with the idea of somehow reading Resa “out” of it—has become his major preoccupation. It’s also high on the list of both Dustfinger, who wants to be read back “into” the book, and Capricorn, who has other ideas.
What helps make this generally palatable—and occasionally charming—has much to do with the subordinate characters and the casting. Dustfinger is the most engaging character Paul Bettany has played since he portrayed the historically specious Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale (2001). And having Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, play the small role of the wife in the book he’s trying to return to is a pleasant touch. Helen Mirren is clearly having a good time—and an infectious one—playing the supposedly hard-hearted Aunt Elinor, and the always-reliable Jim Broadbent offers a clever characterization as the author of the book that’s caused all the trouble. For that matter, Andy Serkis makes a nice villain of the scenery-chewing school of acting—a school that’s just about right for this sort of material. Fraser’s not bad in the lead, but he’s also not particularly strong.
The film’s obvious love of books and its depiction of the magic (here somewhat literalized) of reading are in the movie’s favor. But unfortunately, these elements are not always conveyed as strongly as they should be—perhaps because they’re too hard to adequately dramatize. However, they are there. And that’s certainly pleasant to find in this day and age.
Nonetheless, what keeps the film from fully succeeding lies in the clumsiness of its opening and ending. The opening—especially as concerns Mo’s pigheadedness in not telling his daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett, Nanny McPhee), what’s going on until he absolutely has to—is not only clumsy, but also annoyingly handled. Top this off with Iain Softley’s direction, and some significant problems set in. Softley directs the bulk of the film adequately enough, but he runs into the same snag he did in his last movie, The Skeleton Key (2005): a complete inability to pull off a big ending where one is needed. With a movie like this, that’s a huge drawback. The climax here is filled with possibilities that are never explored, suspense that never quite comes off, haphazard editing, and a flat-footed sense of the utterly perfunctory. The ending needs to soar like a winged monkey, and instead it flops around like a landed fish. Does it completely negate what has come before it? No. But it damages it enough to keep the rest from ringing the gong. Rated PG for fantasy adventure action, some scary moments and brief language.