Film Review: The Lodger

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"The Lodger" is the third film to be based, at least loosely, on Marie Belloc Lowndes' 1913 novel -- which itself was based loosely on the unsolved Jack the Ripper murders of Victorian London -- and the umpteenth film to deal with that infamous killing spree. Only in this film, writer-director David Ondaatje moves the story to contemporary West Hollywood and deconstructs the narrative into alternating levels of reality and illusion.

The film might amuse some, especially fans of Alfred Hitchcock, but is likely to annoy almost everyone else. So despite whatever allure macabre sex slayings may possess, boxoffice does not look promising for this Samuel Goldwyn release.

The concept in Lowndes' book, first made into a silent movie in 1927 by Hitchcock himself, is that a mysterious lodger checks into a couple's room for rent at the exact moment a deranged killer is preying on prostitutes. The landlady comes to suspect her lodger is the slayer.

In Ondaatje's film, a writer (Simon Baker) rents a backyard cottage from a troubled woman (Hope Davis) and her abusive and frequently absent husband (Donal Logue). Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative, the film follows the efforts of a police detective (Alfred Molina) and his rookie partner (Shane West) to catch the elusive killer while the detective struggles with his own demons that include a crazy, suicidal wife (Mel Harris) and an estranged daughter (Rachael Leigh Cook).

But aha! Nothing here is quite what it appears. The landlady is on medication for mental problems, so the tenant may be a figment of her imagination. The detectives are tracking a phantom twice removed -- if you can follow the logic of this -- since their serial killer is imitating a serial killer several years before, since captured and executed, who was in fact imitating Jack the Ripper in the impoverished Whitechapel district of 1888 London.

To further cloud the issue, three male characters -- the lodger, detective and husband -- fall under suspicion of being the killer. Oh, and the rental cottage is on Whitechapel Street. Isn't that just too cute?

Things grow increasingly fuzzy and illogical: The killer stalks hookers who walk absolutely deserted streets. Where, pray tell, is their business? A cop pulls a gun on a fellow cop, gets suspended without pay yet keeps turning up at crime scenes to help in the investigation. The rookie detective clearly is established as gay, then suddenly he has a wife.

Ondaatje's filmography confirms what any viewer of this film can tell: He is obsessed with Hitchcock. All his short films apparently make references to themes, techniques and in one case actual shots from the master's body of work. In this film, he frequently echoes Hitchcock, from a Bernard Herrmann-influenced musical score by John Frizzell to trick shots culled from Hitchcock movies. But the film relies less on Hitchcock's original "The Lodger" and more on "Vertigo," with its theme of characters who misinterpret what they witness.

The movie devolves into a story where a viewer cannot trust anything he sees. Worse, when the killer is finally revealed -- and suffice it to say any kind of fictional probability is shattered by this nonsensical revelation -- one realizes that even the director has lost his sense of reality. If that is your killer, then every scene of prostitutes being murdered is a fake.

Opens: Friday, Jan. 23 (Samuel Goldwyn)
production: Stage 6 Films presents a Merchant Pacific/Michael Mailer Films production
Cast: Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Shane West, Simon Baker, Rachael Leigh Cook, Donal Logue, Philip Baker Hall, Rebecca Pidgeon
Director-screenwriter: David Ondaatje
Based on the novel by: Marie Belloc Lowndes
Producers: Michael Mailer, David Ondaatje
Executive producer: Scott Putman
Director of photography: David A. Armstrong
Production and costume designer: Franco-Giacomo Carbone
Music: John Frizzell
Editor: William Flicker
No rating, 95 minutes
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