One of the biggest surprises of last year was Midnight in Paris' ability to breeze in during the summer and emerge as Woody Allen's highest-grossing box office hit (that's if sleepers like Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters aren't adjusted for inflation). The film is charming and Owen Wilson is beloved, but the real shock is that Allen was able to sell the public on subject matter centered on a dying industry: literature. To delight in that movie is to delight in revisiting figures like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as their work. Cinema's relationship to literature is inherent and, in the case of book-to-movie adaptations, dependent, but rarely is it so blatant. The success of Midnight was a little ray of hope that people might still care about the culture of reading.
The Raven, directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), is enough to close the book on books forever. It imagines the mysterious last days of Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) as a by-the-numbers murder mystery, in which the writer aids the investigation and helps move the story along by crafting the pursued serial killer's next moves. Or something. The killer, up in until the point when he requests direction from Poe (who must comply or face the death of his beloved Emily, played apathetically by Alice Eve), has crafted a series of murders based on Poe's tales ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Masque of the Red Death").
While Poe's stories do have a sort of drowsy appeal, this worked against the film's advantage in my case: I fell asleep 17 times during the screening of The Raven that I attended this week. The most amusing thing about my two hours in the darkened room was tallying each time I nodded off. I'm not a narcoleptic and what kept jolting me awake was the need to write about this thing and make sense of it: frankly, I would have preferred the blankness of non-REM sleep to this revision of history that manages to be both absurd and formulaic. But no, The Raven was my celluloid tell-tale heart, persisting in its haunting of me until I could no longer take it. It says a lot that a movie featuring John Cusack in eyeliner doing his best Nic Cage rage ("Edgar Allan Poe – does it ring a bell?!?") couldn't hold my attention. The film is one big montage of fog-filled streets and sideburns and literature, like some New England hipster reading group I never signed up for. Roger Corman would be rolling in his grave if he were dead...or buried alive.
It's virtually impossible to ascertain what The Raven is trying to accomplish. A fictionalized account of Poe's death, it's not telling us much about his life other than that he was an egomaniac capable of pompous insults ("You mental oyster!" "That marsupial of an editor!"). Its final reveal is so out of leftfield that it's not like it actually wants to be taken seriously as a mystery. Cusack and Eve have the chemistry of corpses. Some gory deaths imply that Poe was an inspiration for Saw, but who gives a fuck about Saw in 2012? And really, if this film is supposed to rhapsodize the work of Poe ("When you stopped writing, I guess I went a little nuts," says the killer during his final confrontation with the writer), that's a shitty way to do it. Midnight in Paris was affectionate, The Raven is insulting.
This movie is useless. Quoth the Raven, What the fuck?