Saving Baby Doll from a lobotomy

Jena Malone (left), Oscar Isaac, and Abbie Cornish in the epic action fantasy with girl-gang and video-game motifs that quickly get stale.
Jena Malone (left), Oscar Isaac, and Abbie Cornish in the epic action fantasy with girl-gang and video-game motifs that quickly get stale.
Posted: March 25, 2011

Sucker Punch, a barrage of green-screen effects and comic-book portentousness from 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder, is hands-down the most nightmarishly awful film of the year. A field day for schoolgirl fetishists and fanboys with a penchant for steampunk (but with Snyder's leaden dialogue, you've got to call it steamclunk), this staggering failure borrows from Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The City of Lost Children, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, and a variety of psych-ward melodramas from The Snake Pit to The Uninvited.

If that sounds like it'd make for a cool mash-up, maybe it would have - if Snyder had anything on his mind apart from exploding zeppelins, fire-breathing dragons, Japanese samurai fights, and Carla Gugino doing a campy Polish accent. One of the creepier aspects of the plot - if you can call this ricocheting pastiche a plot - is that Baby Doll (Emily Browning), the sorry lass who has been committed to Lennox House for the Mentally Insane by her sleazeball stepdad, is set to have a frontal lobotomy.

Talk about apt metaphors: It's nothing but brain-dead delirium on screen.

OK, if you're a 15-year-old boy (or a 30-year-old boy, or a girl with a '50s pinup jones), there's no denying that the girl-gang casting of Sucker Punch - pouty, pigtailed Browning; the regal, Nicole Kidman-esque Abbie Cornish; punky Jena Malone; plucky Vanessa Hudgens, and the exotic Jamie Chung - has a certain allure. But even with the strip-club fantasy costumes and the drop-downs into video gamelike alternate universes, the eye candy quickly gets stale.

Baby Doll is sent to this gothic hilltop asylum, where she shares a ward with the aforementioned inmates, named Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie and Amber. Oscar Isaac is Blue, Lennox House's sinister overseer. One way to keep track of which reality Baby Doll finds herself in is to watch Isaac's face: If he's got a thin mustache going and he's in shark skin, it's the nightclub/bordello reality. If he's clean-shaven, in a white caretaker's jacket, it's the "normal" world.

Gugino (Snyder's muse: She was in Watchmen, too) likewise changes appearance. She's Lennox House's empathetic psychiatrist, counseling her patients in a comfy office on one plane of reality; she's a madam-cum-Method acting coach, leading her leggy troupers through various elaborate scenarios on another.

Sucker Punch, in case this hasn't been made clear, toggles back and forth, to and fro, between alternating mindscapes, as Baby Doll and her team embark on an epic scavenger hunt. They need to find a map, then fire, then a knife, and then a key.

"The fifth thing is a mystery," intones Scott Glenn, playing a kind of Zen master who seems to have boned up on his riddle-me-this delivery by watching episodes of David Carradine's Kung Fu.

"Begin your journey," he tells Baby Doll. "It will set you free."

Exit the theater. It will set you freer.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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