June 24, 2009
Phoebe in Wonderland
Reviewer: Jeffrey Anderson
Rating (out of 5): **
Despite some brilliant performances from its three female leads, Daniel Barnz's Phoebe in Wonderland is an off-putting, misguided disease-of-the-week picture that tries to disguise itself as something else before finally coming clean. Elle Fanning plays the Phoebe of the title. She's the child of two brilliant parents, both writers. Her father (Bill Pullman) is putting the finishing touches on a book that will be published by a scholarly press. Her mother (Felicity Huffman) has been working on a study of "Alice in Wonderland," but never finds the time to write. Phoebe also has a sister (Bailee Madison) who complains that Phoebe gets all the attention--and she's right, because this sister never really makes much of a mark on the film.
Phoebe often imagines and speaks to several characters from Wonderland; sometimes they're played by the same actors from her real life, and sometimes not, though the correlations are never clear. Sometimes they have good advice and sometimes not. Barnz never really distinguishes these sequences visually; they're neither startling nor enchanting. Eventually, in real life, she gets cast as Alice in the school play (what a coincidence!), which is directed by the odd new drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson, with her hair in pinned-up braids). Miss Dodger very often sits quietly and lets the students direct themselves, while she seems to be thinking wise thoughts. At the same time, Phoebe begins behaving strangely, doing obsessive-compulsive counting, stair-stepping and hand-washing. This leads to lots of hand-wringing and crying and visits with principals and shrinks, and finally the big "reveal" as to what's actually wrong with Phoebe.
Campbell Scott co-stars as the school's principal. He pretends to hold a position of power, but is really quite useless when it comes to making decisions or dealing with people, and Scott lends a sly comic tinge to his finicky, bespectacled performance. It doesn't fit in with the rest of the film, but it suggests a far more interesting tone than the one Barnz finally settles on.
As it is, the film is worried and prickly, and even though it's as emotionally unstable as Phoebe, it lacks the courage to really explore this angle on purpose. Rather, it seems as if the tone has eluded the filmmaker, coming across as a snatch and grab patchwork, with hardly any of it meshing. For example, Barnz devotes a good deal of time to Phoebe's classmate Jamie (Ian Colletti) who likes playing girls' parts but gets teased about his sexuality; one scene is entirely devoted to speaking out against gay-bashing, but it has nothing to do with the film other than to reveal that Barnz is perhaps more concerned with messages than he is with passion.
Image Entertainment is packaging the DVD as a "magical, extraordinary" film full of wonder, which it definitely does not have. Let's hope viewers will not be so easily fooled. The DVD's only extra is a theatrical trailer.
Posted by cphillips at June 24, 2009 3:13 PM