In Theaters: Downloading Nancy
The poster tagline for Maria Bello's new Downloading Nancy promises "the most controversial film you will see this year." Clearly the marketers either weren't paying attention at Cannes or were just counting on Antichrist opening in 2010, but even so, the most controversial thing about this arid, grueling melodrama is its prodigious waste of talent. Genital mutilation notwithstanding, it's even harder to endure Bello -- and everyone else involved -- yanked to this level of badness.
The actress stars as Nancy, a psychologically tormented housewife who spends an inordinate amount of her time chasing gratification on the Web. Not just any gratification, however, but rather the kind that prods her with agony to override her day-to-day numbness. The endgame: Death, as solicited from a stranger named Lewis (Jason Patric) and pursued in earnest over one looong night in Baltimore. Waiting tensely back in their drab suburban home, careerist husband Albert (Rufus Sewell) worries that maybe he should have taken greater heed all those times Nancy melted down in bed or childishly flung mashed potatoes at him.
In flashbacks, Nancy's therapist (Amy Brenneman) traces her emotional arrest to sexual abuse by her uncle. You can probably see where this is going, and even if you can't, anything you make up would likely be a more stirring cinematic vision of self-destruction. It's tough to imagine how director Johan Renck thought he had the right idea here, playing up anguish so self-aware and clinically on-the-nose that it literally feels like a punch in the face. And no one is socked harder than Bello, whom Renck reduces to the flat archetypes of deprived wife, stunted girl-woman, and death-wish sex masochist. Patric's angel of death blankly surrenders to her psychosis, whether she's cutting herself in the hardware store or walking blindfolded and barefoot into mousetraps. Finally confronted by Patric, Sewell says "fuck" a lot while searching for answers.
It's hard to believe that all four otherwise respectable, accomplished actors could be this off in the same film. Yet even the peerless cinematographer Christopher Doyle can't dig much below Renck's shiny, sordid blue surface, which really says something about a sort of creative disenfranchisement plaguing the whole effort. And only so much is attributable to the script by Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross, an airless, nonlinear slab of indie chamber-drama loathing. Everyone here seems to work in the service of the two unassailable principles about the horrors of abuse: It looks great on-screen, and audiences eat it up. Maybe so, but really, how controversial is that? Wake me when it's over. RATING: 4