Did you grow up playing with an imaginary friend? Perhaps a pretend sibling or a pet? Maybe a big hairy muppet like Mr. Snuffleupagus that only you could see? Hopefully he or she was nothing like Charlie. He's rather temperamental, and when he's unhappy, people have a way of … dying.
That's the potentially scary premise to the decidedly non-scary Hide & Seek, a film written by newcomer Ari Schlossberg and directed by John Polson, who previously helmed 2002's non-thrilling teen thriller Swimfan. Ten-year-old Dakota Fanning (she with big blue eyes from Man on Fire) plays Emily Callaway, a seemingly well-adjusted only child living in Manhattan with her parents David (Robert De Niro, Meet the Fockers) and Alison (Amy Irving, last seen on TV's Alias).
Things take a tragic turn when Alison inexplicably commits suicide in the bathtub one night. Emily understandably becomes joyless and detached, so the bereaved widower (a psychologist, of course) decides it's best to isolate his daughter from painful memories (and friends and familiar environment) by moving upstate to make a fresh start while deepening their bond—rrrright. They buy a house in the small town of Woodland, populated by a few well-known character actors with vaguely creepy demeanors.
Enter Charlie, Emily's new unseen companion after moving to Woodland. At first David believes Emily is simply expressing her grief through an imaginary friend. But then the mischief begins to unfold, elevating at an alarming rate. Is Emily responsible for these violent acts? Could they somehow be related to the mysterious neighbors who lost their child last year? And what's with the dark cave in the woods? If Charlie is real, who or what is he?
This movie has more red herrings than an Agatha Christie novel combined with the aquarium downtown. The real question we all should be asking is, "How did this stinker attract such a big name cast?" You can't blame Fanning for wanting to add to her budding resume with a somewhat different role for her—and after all, she gets second billing only to the once great De Niro, who seems to be increasingly desperate for work in recent years. Famke Janssen (X2), as a psychologist colleague and family friend, is used to B-movie thrillers.
What's especially peculiar is that Elisabeth Shue (Adventures in Babysitting) makes this her first major project since doing Hollow Man more than four years ago. And why is she, along with talented actors like Amy Irving and Dylan Baker, taking bit parts that most young actors try to erase from their resumes when they get older? Truthfully, none of these people add anything that an unknown couldn't have done as well. Apparently it's the lure of the opportunity to work with De Niro, but did they get the chance to see Godsend before they agreed to this?
The two leads don't quite interact the way they should either. Fanning, made up to look like Wednesday Addams, is a remarkably mature actress for her age. She's supposed to be scary or at least disturbing, but mostly comes off as sad and traumatized, which is actually appropriate to her character but inappropriate to the story's intended mood—blame the script and direction in this case instead of the performance. Conversely, De Niro is supposed to be the sympathetic and loving father, but he comes off as cold and boring from the very first scene. We never once believe that David has ever had a strong bond with Emily, and it completely sucks the suspense out of the story.
Some of you are thinking that all of this can still be overlooked for the sake of a surprise finale. But like far too many thrillers these days, the biggest problem with Hide and Seek is that it's focused on the wrong thing. Everyone's trying to one-up The Sixth Sense with The Big Twist Ending, but very few have since 1999. What filmmakers seem to be forgetting is that they have at least 90 minutes of time leading up to the plot twist. No one reads the last few pages of the book to learn that the butler did it; to fully enjoy a mystery, they're looking for drama, tension, and a puzzle to be solved along the way. Develop the characters, stage a clever scene, write some intelligent dialogue. It's the journey that makes a story great, not the ending.
No thriller cliché goes unused in this movie, relying once again on cheap jumps to frighten the audience: the leaping cat, the quickly whisked shower curtain, the overly loud sound mix, the extreme close-up. Yet as reliable as these usually are for a few flinches, rarely have they been executed with so little effectiveness. Of the couple hundred people that I screened Hide and Seek with, only one obviously skittish woman exclaimed audibly (to nearly every quick movement) during the film. This is not a scary movie. If your pulse goes up while watching it, see your doctor—you probably need blood pressure medication.
As for the supposed plot twist, Hide and Seek leaves loaf-sized breadcrumbs throughout, including the first five minutes of character development and exposition. All you have to do is listen to the dialogue, note the behavior patterns, and always remember that most films don't waste money on scenes unless they're pertinent to the plot. Without spoiling it, this story's twist is one of the most overused in the last decade, and here it's rendered so clumsily that it doesn't quite add up. What's more, the big reveal happens a little over an hour in, thus bringing everyone in the audience up to speed for 30 minutes of thriller clichés that one typically finds in every direct-to-video slasher.
It's hard to believe that anyone who's film-savvy or simply paying attention will be fooled, though no doubt some will. This movie's tagline says, "If you want to know the secret, you have to play the game." The problem with Hide and Seek is that it's neither a secret worth knowing nor a game worth playing. Save your time and money by hiding from this film—it's an imaginary movie best left unseen.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Have you ever lost someone close to you? What special needs do children have when a loved one dies? How do they cope with the grief and how do we offer them comfort and hope?
- Is it healthy to have an imaginary friend? Should parents encourage it until their kids grow out of it, or should they nip it in the bud? Might children to confuse imaginary friends and a relationship with God/Jesus? Might imaginary friends actually be demonic influences? How do we learn the difference between real and imaginary?
- Who can children turn to when they can't depend on their parents for guidance and help? And when a child seems problematic, is it right for others to step in and do the job of the parents? At what point is it appropriate or inappropriate to intercede with family affairs?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Rated R for frightening sequences and violence, it's a little odd that Hide and Seek didn't earn the PG-13 that films like Boogeyman, The Grudge, and The Sixth Sense got by with. Perhaps the movie hits too close to home with the paternal suicide, though the act is not shown. There are few deaths in the film, intensely shot but not particularly graphic, involving knives and a gun. The movie also includes a brief scene of sexuality and one quick f-bomb. The movie is too frightening for children.
Photos © Copyright 20th Century Fox
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 02/03/05
The actor who became a legend in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver now has a career that's gone off the road.
Hide and Seek, the latest movie starring Robert De Niro, might be the box office champion, but critics and DeNiro fans agree—this once-great actor's career has become an embarrassment. This paranormal thriller, which also stars young Dakota Fanning (soon to co-star in Spielberg's War of the Worlds), is getting panned by critics, including those in the religious press. DeNiro's participation fails to elevate the material; in fact, it sounds like his work makes it worse.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says DeNiro "comes off as cold and boring from the very first scene. [The] question we all should be asking is, 'How did this stinker attract such a big name cast?' No thriller cliché goes unused in this movie, relying once again on cheap jumps to frighten the audience: the leaping cat, the quickly whisked shower curtain, the overly loud sound mix, the extreme close-up. Yet as reliable as these usually are for a few flinches, rarely have they been executed with so little effectiveness."
Breimeier went on to say that Hide and Seek "has more red herrings than an Agatha Christie novel combined with the aquarium downtown." The "red herring" theme was also popular with at least two more critics.
"One can only wonder if [DeNiro] actually read the script before signing on," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "The cliché-ridden script lacks any real suspense, let alone the faintest semblance of logic. What it does have is more red herrings than your local fish market and a ridiculous twist ending which elicits more snickers than surprise."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) calls it "a psychological thriller with two big twists—blink and you'll miss the second one—and enough red herrings to stink up an entire fish market… . [U]ltimately the film proves to be like one of those Rube Goldberg contraptions: a whole lot of moving parts to accomplish very little.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls DeNiro's performance "bland and unremarkable," adding that the "by-the-numbers script … telegraphs its secrets and often unintentionally borders on and occasionally crosses over into camp. For anyone familiar with the genre, the only thing surprising about the ending is the fact that it was used … again."
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