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Manic Spume 

Panic Room (R)
Columbia Pictures

It took me a poor night's rest and some fidgeting to figure out why I didn't like David Fincher's newest film Panic Room. Fincher -- who loves to make strategic endgame films with plenty of psychological twists and couched moral finger-wagging (Seven, The Game, and Fight Club) -- forgot his most essential ingredient: Duh! Existential mystery. Hello! In other words: He played all his cards too soon.

The premise is fantastic: Recently divorced rich woman (Jodie Foster) and daughter (Kristen Stewart) move into a lavish New York apartment with a secret room for protecting themselves and their rich people things and end up using it sooner rather than later when the bad guys come. (Just a bit over 25 words!)

Here are the elements for all the plot twists: a gun (surprise!), a good man gone bad in desperate circumstances (Forest Whitaker), a bumbling schemer (Jared Leto), the guy with the gun (Dwight Yoakam), diabetes, a whole lotta money, a phone line, a cell phone, a propane tank, a garden hose, a lot of surveillance equipment, and the panic room.

If it seems like I'm just rattling off a bunch of devices, it's because I am, and that's how the film comes off. (Can't you just hear the original pitch?) Panic Room, in the end, seems to be more of a failed film-school exercise in pure plot than a look at fear, our need for security, our national obsession with surveillance, class differences, and a host of other things it could've been.

And that brings me back to "existential mystery": Every single move in this film is telegraphed way before it happens. If you saw The Game or Fight Club, you know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about those wonderfully nagging questions: What's really going on? Where are we? Are the characters who we think they are, or are they just part of some game? Such questions build a less gratuitous brand of suspense that rises above the finer points of plot.

Then again, as I always say: Whatever. Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart are totally hot as the brainy, gutsy mama-baby duo. Dwight Yoakam is wonderfully grotesque. Forest Whitaker shoulders the weak script with a masterful dignity. Jared Leto overacts adequately. Ann Magnuson from the band Bong Water makes a catty little cameo as the real-estate agent. And the panic room itself is enough of a character to make the whole thing worth two hours' wages.

--Noel Black

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