With a speaking voice that often (and unexpectedly) devolves into histrionic yelps and an assortment of goofy, ever-changing hair pieces, Nicolas Cage has become such a creative loose cannon you often want to check in on his latest effort in the off chance that he’s delivered some creative crazy good (“Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans”) instead of the crazy mediocre that seems to be the norm (almost everything else he does).
Though sometimes there is a middle ground – see the 3D extravaganza called “Drive Angry” where, in an early sequence, he threatened to drink wine out of another character’s skull, and by the end of the movie he actually did. His latest is “Trespass,” a Joel Schumacher-directed thriller that, despite a solid cast and catchy premise, barely skirted status as a direct-to-video clunker. Veering away from WTF-insanity, his performance in this picture is much more subdued than they have been in a while, but that doesn’t make the movie any less absurd. Though this one, you can squarely blame on Schumacher; Cage is just along for the ride.
From the outset, “Trespass” seems fairly standard but with the possibility of something more intriguing. Cage plays the creatively named Kyle Johnson, a man with a flashy job (selling diamonds) and a flashy, castle-like home that he shares with his wife Sarah (Nicole Kidman, fresh from her Oscar nomination in “Rabbit Hole”) and their petulant teen daughter Avery (Liana Liberato). As the film opens Kyle come home from work and kisses his wife, her hanging on his touch longer than he does. It’s a slight moment but it’s also a promising one – maybe the movie, although billed as a thriller, will make time to investigate the dynamics of their relationship. Kyle goes into his office, opens up his “Mission: Impossible”-like safe, and takes out an envelope, gazing at its contents (which we never see). Again: it’s a small moment but one that emphasizes mystery and promise. “Trespass” starts out like a muscular genre exercise, but for a movie about people trapped in a house, it goes nowhere fast.
You see, Kyle and Sarah’s ostensibly blissful domestic life is about to come crashing down around them with the arrival of three threatening burglars played by Dash Mihok (from “The Thin Red Line”) and Ben Mendelsohn (from “Animal Kingdom”). Also Cam Gigandet is there, so nonthreatening that even his ski mask looks wimpy. They want to rob Kyle of his jewels to pay off some gangsters and are willing to stay in the fortress-y house until they get what they want.
Okay, so fair enough. It’s a riff on a familiar genre, the home invasion thriller, and in an effort to set itself apart, the filmmakers (including Schumacher, whose last film was a direct-to-video horror movie called “Blood Creek” which featured a then-unknown Michael Fassbender as an undead Nazi) have decided to fill it with twists. Ludicrous, ludicrous twists. From the fact that the crack team of underworld-connected thieves bringing a unpredictable drug addict (Jordana Spiro) along for the job (she spends much of the movie smoking crack and trying on Kidman’s glamorous evening gowns) to a series of laughable flashbacks involving Kidman and Gigandet (as a home security operative) in which Kidman is dressed exclusively in white and shot with a gauzy soft-glow filter, if you don’t snort out a burst of derisive laughter at least once, then you simply aren’t paying attention.
While Cage is restrained he still manages to break down a lot and yell and threaten the bad guys in the maniacal way that only Nicolas Cage can really pull off – but it’s at the service of a painfully inept script and at the hands of truly lackluster direction by Schumacher. For all of the yellowed paperback cliffhangers the film jams in, it’s still Cage who’s the liveliest, most dangerously unhinged element as he desperately tries to keep his family alive. And he’s supposed to be the square of the picture. On the other side of the performance coin is Gigandet, a veteran of the “Twilight” franchise who comes across as a very handsome (and probably very nice) young man who a crack team of publicists and handlers have decided should be the next Hollywood heartthrob without ever considering if he could actually, you know, act. He plays Mendelsohn’s crazy younger brother (in one unintentionally hilarious scene Mendelsohn discovers that Gigandet has replaced his antipsychotic medication with Tic-Tacs), slamming his fists into the steely upscale refrigerator and pacing around in circles (it’s because he’s angry!). But for all his lusty frustrations and supposed viciousness, he comes across as a pouty teen pining for an older woman. The fact that Nicole Kidman has to act against this buffoon might be one of the movie’s most unpleasant injustices.
For pure awfulness, though, nothing can quite top Schumacher’s slipshod and confused direction. While not an excellent filmmaker, he’s always displayed a modicum of talent, but he can’t quite do darkness. His most successful films as a director, like the vampire shocker “The Lost Boys” (way back in 1987) and the fed-up vigilante drama “Falling Down,” work because he tempers the bleakness with a kind of arch sensibility that borders, lovingly, on camp. Anytime he’s handed something that requires a more straightforward thriller approach, like the Cage-starring “8mm,” he botches it. And here he seems completely out of his element, unable to jazz up a lackluster script, no matter how good the actors on screen are. His direction is sluggish and lazy, instead of trying to maximize the dynamism and variety of the single location, he just lets things slide. There’s more visual punch in an average episode of “Law & Order.” He intermittently cuts in a whip pan, a blur of motion and color, but they’re so disconnected from the rest of the movie that you’re not even sure these cutaways are from the same scene.
By the time “Trespass” and all its unintentionally risible and ridiculous twists conclude -- an excruciating 91 minutes later complete with hazy, last-minute computer generated fire effects -- you can barely believe what you’ve seen (the last act is so bad it begins to morph into deliciously fun ironic entertainment). Sure, it resembles a theatrical movie in that it’s full of big stars, but in every other aspect it’s a total direct-to-video junk heap. Not even Nicolas Cage’s jolts of weirdness can save this thing from being a totally predictable mess. Watching it, you’ll feel violated. [D-]