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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
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The Count of Monte Cristo
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The Count of Monte Cristo

I had high hopes for The Count of Monte Cristo. The trailer pulled me in, as trailers often do. The cast list promised actors rather than stars, although actors who may be on the verge of stardom. And Alexandre Dumas' endlessly adaptable novel (over 50 times, according to one source) has enough buckled swash to satisfy the 10-year-old in anyone. But I was worried about the director, Kevin Reynolds, who helped Kevin Costner walk the plank in Waterworld and, as far as I can tell, has never learned how to put a scene, or a shot, together. Reynolds' Count of Monte Cristo, which stars Jim Caviezel as the uncommon commoner and Guy Pearce as the all-too-common aristocrat who betrays him, is the essence of perfunctory filmmaking. Hectic yet lifeless, it's as if Reynolds has gone through the novel and removed all the adjectives and adverbs.

Dumas crammed a lot of plot in there ' all that revenge to be meticulously doled out ' and the movie is sometimes carried along by it. But Reynolds brings nothing to the material. Consider the moment when Richard Harris, as the long-imprisoned Abbe Faria, comes busting through the future count's cell floor. We're talking years of digging here, pebble by pebble, and Reynolds dispenses with the whole thing in mere seconds of screen time, as if he had better things to do. The whole movie's like that ' one thing after another, no real rise and fall, contraction or expansion. When Caviezel's Edmond Dantes discovers the hidden treasure, it's as if he's just made a withdrawal at the Tyme machine. And when the newly christened count arrives at his coming-out party ' in a hot-air balloon, no less ' it's as if Cleopatra has just entered Rome...on a scooter.

Caviezel, who could beat Daniel Day-Lewis in a brooding contest, may be too serious an actor for Dumas' romantic adventure epic. And Pearce, who keeps scrunching up his face in aristocratic disdain (or is it indigestion?), seems adrift, as if he doesn't quite know what to make of the character other than that he's a cad. That both of the actors could pass as GQ models makes the movie watchable, although Caviezel goes through a Robinson Crusoe phase while withering away in prison, and Pearce's face measures his character's moral erosion in patches of increasingly sallow flesh. Thus does Justice work her magic, tipping the scales toward a happy ending. But the movie does a poor job of explaining the unhappy middle that precedes the happy ending ' i.e., the nature of evil and revenge. "Why are you doing this to me?" Caviezel begs Pearce at one point. Pearce's response: "It's complicated."

I wish.

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