How many times do you allow a filmmaker to burn you before you stop coming back for more? Usually I’d allow a fairly long leash in these situations, but I have a feeling Tarsem Singh is about to really test my patience. Singh’s first feature, The Cell, is a fairly decent thriller that’s stuck with me over the years due to its intense, dream-logic visuals (a knack the director undoubtedly picked up from his music video/advertisement days). It was The Cell‘s follow-up, The Fall, that affords him so much patience form me as an audience. Easily one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen in a theater, The Fall is a fantastic, visually overwhelming movie about the very nature of storytelling as an artform, a work that nearly outdoes the great Terry Gilliam at his own game. I can’t say enough hyperbolically great thing about The Fall, which makes it all the more confusing why not any one of the three Tarsem Singh features that have followed have piqued my interest. Somehow, each follow-up looked even blander than the last and I didn’t want to ruin the high note The Fall left me soaring on.
I recently ruined all that goodwill by checking in on Tarsem Singh’s most high profile work to date. When considered in the abstract, a big budget retelling of a classic Grimms’ tale would be a perfect follow-up to the grandiose fantasy dreamscape of The Fall, but Singh does so little to justify that optimism here. I’m honestly not convinced that he hasn’t been murdered & replaced by an imposter, possibly some kind of artificial intelligence from the future or an ancient human-impersonating monster. Mirror Mirror is Tarsem operating in the world of fairy tales (Snow White, for those somehow unaware), but it’s a dull, passionless work that could’ve been handled by any number of journeymen with a Hollywood-sized checkbook. Indeed, there are echoes of the film’s contemporaries like Maleficent and Snow White & The Huntsmen at work in Mirror Mirror, but I’d argue that even those far-from-prestigious comparison points far outshine this lifeless exercise. They’re at least occasionally fun. Even this film’s out-of-nowhere Bollywood song & dance ending was somehow more painful than delightful.
I’m not sure how closely Mirror Mirror follows the original Grimms’ tale, but I am sure that I don’t care to investigate. In this version (subversion?) Snow White carries a sword and saves her own ass from peril, which is presented as a big whoop, but instead bores to the point of cruelty. If I’m remembering correctly, I’ve seen a swordfighting, swashbuckling Snow White onscreen before on the impossibly cheesy ABC show Once Upon a Time and even they did a better a job of keeping my eyes open than this drag. I guess the film gets certain brownie points for at least attempting to subvert the damsel in distress dynamic of many (bastardized) fairy tales, but it does so with such a half-hearted non-effort that it’s hard to drum up any genuine enthusiasm for the content.
The true story of this film is the long list of suffering actors practically checking their watches as the running time slowly bleeds out. Nathan Lane looks especially pained in his boredom and, despite thanklessly giving the same endless charm he brought to his roles in The Social Network & The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Armie Hammer does little to lighten the mood. The most embarrassing turn of all comes from Julia Roberts, however, who fully commits to her role as the evil queen/witch, but fails miserably. Roberts toothlessly gums the scenery when the movie demands that she devour it. An over the top villain might’ve saved Mirror Mirror from total devastation but Roberts simply isn’t up for it & watching her try is admittedly a little pathetic.
I guess if I were to say one nice thing about Mirror Mirror I could point to its lavish costumes, which likely deserved the Academy Award they took home in 2013. As the costuming in The Fall was similarly striking, this one detail could maybe serve as a glimmer of hope that Tarsem Singh has at least one more decent movie buried deep within him somewhere, depending on how closely you want to look. Costume design is only one small piece in the larger, complex filmmaking puzzle, though, and I doubt the other Singh films I’m going to catch up with despite myself are going to fare much better, brilliant costume design or no. There honestly isn’t much hope left out there.