The only possible cure for A Cure for Wellness would have been for the horror film maestro Val Lewton to have been summoned from the grave to chop it down to no more than 79 minutes. And maybe not even then…. Over-produced and under-thought-out, this unconscionably elaborate attempt at an old-fashioned Gothic thriller looks great but is beyond silly. And for those who haven’t tuned out or walked out before the film staggers to a close after nearly two-and-a-half hours, the payoff offers absolutely nothing in the way of genre pleasures or thematic resonance. After The Lone Ranger and now this, perhaps it’s time for director Gore Verbinski to make another animated film to recharge his batteries.
The film’s most striking images come at the very beginning, with near-dark vistas of Midtown Manhattan office buildings creating a haunting sense of stupendous man-made monuments and canyons. Occupying one tower is a big-league financial services company at which one man mysteriously dies on the job late one night, while CEO Harold Pembroke (Harry Groener) has taken off for Switzerland just as some legal guano has hit the fan.
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Sent to fetch Pembroke is hustling stockbroker Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), who looks about 17 and has every intention of arriving in Europe in the morning and returning with his charge the same evening. The destination is an opulent old pile tucked away high in the Alps, a Rolex or Mercedes-level sanitarium surrounded by grounds on which the white-clad, mostly elderly occupants play croquet and blissfully drink buckets of water renowned for its “uniquely rejuvenating qualities.”
No matter the young man’s insistence that Pembroke be handed over to him at once, the place has a way of slowing down the pace for everyone, including the filmmakers: Whole scenes are devoted to dropping one little morsel of information at a time, such as when Lockhart discovers a tiny bug in his water. The viewer immediately sees the “Don’t drink the water!” flashing light but, unfortunately, it takes Lockhart himself about another two hours of screen time to catch on.
In the meantime, the otherwise bright lad becomes hobbled by a fractured leg and meets an odd young lady, Hannah (Mia Goth), who warns him, “You will never leave,” although it’s doubtful the cloistered lass ever heard an Eagles song. Hannah is “like a daughter” to the establishment’s superficially reassuring but obviously sinister top dog, Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who knows he has a wild card on his hands with Lockhart.
The enterprising young man manages to spirit Hannah off-campus for a brief visit to the nearest town, where the Bavarian tavern is occupied by a bunch of toughs about as scary looking as the chorus in The Book of Mormon. Unenthusiastic about the attention Lockhart is paying to Hannah, Voldemort…er, Volmer, finally gets down to serious business with the American interloper, doing to the kid’s teeth what Laurence Olivier never entirely succeeded in doing to Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man.
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Viewers unprepared for how long A Cure for Wellness runs will be glancing at their watches or phones in disbelief that after 90 minutes, then 120, an ending has yet to come into sight. When Volmer starts lauding his astounding scientific achievements in the field of longevity, you’ll know the film is coming out of the back stretch. When an enormous dance ball sequence begins, it’s finishing the far turn and heading for home, although this is delayed somewhat so that Volmer, by now exposed for what he really is, can explain his reasons for everything he’s done, making for a very busy and protracted climax in which one could scarcely feel less invested.
The motives and rationales for all the nastiness and deceit and foul play could scarcely be sillier and less convincing, nor could the rooting interest on behalf of the alleged protagonists be more shallow. Impressive in several indie films up to this point (Kill Your Darlings, for example), DeHaan will need to pick his hoped-for big-budget crossover projects with more care, while Isaacs has played sinister much more effectively in some earlier efforts (as in the Harry Potter films).
The two strong achievements here are Bojan Bazelli’s bold cinematography and Eve Stewart’s resourceful production design, which effectively mixes motifs old and new.
Opens: Feb. 17 (Fox)
Production: Blind Wink, New Regency
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener, Celia Imrie, Adrian Schiller, Ivo Nandi, Tomas Norstrom, Ashok Mandanna, Lisa Banes, David Bishins, Carl Lumbly
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe, story by Justin Haythe, Gore Verbinski
Producers: Arnon Milchan, Gore Verbinski, David Crockett
Executive producers: Justin Haythe, Morgan Des Groseillers
Director of photography: Bojan Bazelli
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Editors: Lance Pereira, Pete Beaudreau
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting: Denise Chaiman
R rating, 146 minutes