Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

"...and maybe avoid the slimey girl!"

I loved "Stranger Than Fiction." Marc Foster's direction gave depth and substance to the unique voice of Zach Helm's script. And every part was expertly cast and the peripherals presented in CGI gave a sprightly twist to the action on-screen. When I heard that Helm was directing his own script for "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," I thought "Great! Now we'll see what this Helm guy is capable of!"

Be careful what you wish for.

"Magorium" is such an insubstantial froth of a movie that before you get five minutes into it, you're saying "I'm not buying this!" And with good reason--it's "Stranger Than Fiction" all over again, but from another perspective and far more precious. When I say "far more" I'm saying "falling-into-a-vat-of-Krispy-Kreme-dough" precious. The kind of gooey sap that half an hour of scrubbing with Boraxo can't shake. The same way that cake frosting turns hard as a rock after five weeks in the desert sun. Despite some clever touches and the occasional funny line, it still makes you want to walk out and punch a nun.

What's it about? A magical toy store run by a 243 year old toy impressario, wonder efficianado (and avid shoe-wearer) Mr. Magorium who has decided that it's time to go. "You're dying?" wails Mahoney (Natalie Portman), the piano-prodigy, who at 23 has not lived up to her potential. "Light bulbs die, my sweet," he bubbles. "I will depart." To get his affairs in order, he hires an accountant ("Must be someone who counts and is a mutant," says Magorium, and thereafter Henry Westin is referred to simply as "Mutant"), who is so button-downed he doesn't play one whit, not even checkers (exactly like Will Farrell's character in "Stranger Than Fiction?" you say, and you're awarded a gold star). And what's worse, the toy store is starting to bubble underneath the velvet wall-paper and turn a tainted shade of gray.

It's all just icky--icky in the way a wet lollipop collects dog hair. Dustin Hoffman finds a pretty good balance for his twee little toy-maker, looking like he's been sticking his fingers in wall-sockets for years and elocuting like Bullwinkle. Natalie Portman is the film's biggest draw-back, tamping down any effervescence by screwing up her face and looking concerned. It's really bad when instead of carrying about what the character is going through, you wonder what kind of exfoliant the lead actress is using. Any glow she has is purely pharmaceutical. Jason Bateman plays the stick-up-his-sphincter he has a real stick up his sphincter. He managed to make straight-laced funny in "Arrested Development" Wha' hoppened? And as the Narrator/Obligatory Little Kid, Zach Mills plays it with a seriousness and dignity that seems to say "I will rise above this." Attaway, kid. Hope you're not knocking over Winn-Dixies in ten years.

Now, see? This movie didn't enchant me or make me feel warm inside. It made me think bad thoughts. Cruel thoughts. There's a lot of surface detail to "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium,"* but no depth. It needs some grit and sand beyond having the lead character kicking the Big Beach Bucket. As it stands, it's just a wad of cotton candy that you want to throw water on...just to see it disappear.

"Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is a cable-watcher

* Another thing: Who is the audience for this thing? Kids won't get it or be upset by it, and adults will find it just cloyingly annoying. But then a lot of kids won't get a lot of jokes. For example: there's a shot of a Buster Keaton marionette trying to untangle itslf from its own strings--a pretty funny reference, but little kids don't know Buster Keaton. The same goes for the bit where Zack starts buildings stuff out of Lincoln Logs and when he's finally finished, he's made...a life-size Lincoln! Funny, huh? But not if you don't know what the Lincoln Logs are, and nobody under 30 DOES!

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