Unlike Terence Davies, whose use of the cinematic past becomes a felt element in his storytelling, writer-director David Ondaatje repeats the past so inexpertly that The Lodger (an update of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 film) is almost comically schlocky. Ondaatje’s poor technique lowers the basic material—the Jack the Ripper legend, which has already been remade three times and is the source of innumerable suspense films—as if deliberately seeking B-movie status.
The characterizations of a bickering married couple
(Hope Davis and Donal Logue) renting out their guest house to a mysterious stranger (Simon Baker) and a police detective (Alfred Molina) investigating the killings of prostitutes are overly familiar yet unconvincing. Set in contemporary West Hollywood, the routine plot conventions don’t seem re-purposed. Ondaatje’s use of suspense tropes (including Psycho-style music) plus frequent flashes of Jack the Ripper lore and period forensic and morgue photographs, does nothing to enhance the narrative details of movie town loneliness, sexual ambiguity and family dysfunction.
Like a copycat killer with no conscious commitment to contemporary reality, Ondaatje doesn’t know how to convey his own feelings for the story (and storytelling) that fascinates him. Left unguided, Ondaatje’s second-tier actors carry an unmistakable whiff of “What the hell! It’s a job!” dutifulness. You know something’s wrong when Rebecca Pidgeon pops up to explicate the plot—just like the shrink at the end of Psycho. Pidgeon’s tongue-in-cheek; Ondaatje’s foot-in-mouth.
The Lodger’s clumsy and insincere replication of the cultural past is exactly what Terence Davies’ art struggles against. This happens when modern sophistication is detached from emotional experience. Ondaatje prolongs clichés the same way David Fincher did in Zodiac. He demonstrates egotistical folly like last year’s just plain awful French import Tell No One by Guillaume Canet where an overcomplicated murder mystery got more preposterous, self-infatuated and distasteful as it went along.
Ondaatje, Fincher and Canet share the same cultural ignorance and narcissism. This fake erudition also prevents critics from appreciating De Palma’s elegant Hitchcock revisions or leads them to dismiss a superbly concise and wit-filled narrative like Transporter 3 or relegate Terence Davies’ meta-cinema pop culture masterworks as esoteric. Ondaatje is merely a lodger in the house of cinema. Like Fincher and Canet, he turns movie sophistication into banality.
Directed by David Ondaatje
Running Time: 95 min.
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