directed by David Fincher with Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam opens March 29 at Neptune and others
IF YOU'RE GOING to set a simple genre picture in New York, you'd better be New York-smart about it. For former music video director David Fincher, having finally gained respectability with Fight Club, the challenge is even steeper in resurrecting the hoary "femjep" thriller. What's that? Female in jeopardy—a surefire formula perfected by D.W. Griffith. Then, the usual pattern was a housebound white woman (plus kids) locking herself behind a series of smashed doors while being pursued by rape-minded ethnic hooligans. Griffith famously intercut the home-invasion scenes with the white patriarchy's rousing ride to the rescue.
Of course, no one but Jodie Foster is going to rescue Jodie Foster in a Jodie Foster movie. But except for Fincher's camera work, Room is hardly an advance from the silent era. It begins smartly enough, with an arch realtor (Ann Magnuson) showing our newly divorced heroine (Foster) and daughter a brownstone equipped with a high-tech panic room. (Does it come with closed-circuit video surveillance monitors? Need you even ask?) Alas, once the deal is closed, every trace of intelligence disappears from Room.
Mother and daughter are naturally besieged on their very first night in residence. Our home-invasion team includes the obligatory nice guy (Forest Whitaker), motormouth ringleader (Jared Leto), and silent psycho (Dwight Yoakam). The burglars are only after money, which undermines the tension of Fincher's effectively urgent, roving camera. Room rather chastely insists that these baddies are robbers (sure), killers (maybe), but they'd never do anything nasty enough to push Room's R-rating. While they bicker about how to retrieve millions of dollars secreted in Foster's vaultlike refuge by the home's former owner, her daughter begins to look wan and pale. (Headed for a diabetic coma, perhaps? Even Griffith never stooped so low.)
Doing her best to emulate Sigourney Weaver's hard maternal Aliens stare, Foster looks tough, but not New York- tough. Likewise, the three perps lack convincing cojones. (It's one thing for them to joke about Joe Pesci, another thing to be as scary as Joe Pesci.) Fincher crafts memorably spooky details (the whine of the Makita, the teeth tearing duct tape) but fails to achieve one decent surprise or unpredictable shock in 108 minutes. His screenwriter, David Koepp, explored the menace, claustrophobia, and paranoia filling a big dark house much better in the '89 SIFF prize-winning Apartment Zero. In this structure, by contrast, such grand architecture is just empty.