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PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: Donnie Darko Plays with the Time of Our Lives

PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: Donnie Darko Plays with the Time of Our Lives

PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: Donnie Darko Plays
with the Time of Our Lives

Andy Bailey

(indieWIRE/01.21.01) –Everyone wondered what the kids of the Eighties would grow
up to achieve. Steeped in too much pop culture, tempted by excess, assured they’d
never attain the incomes or accomplishments of their parents’ generation, our
Reagan-era youth woke up from the long night of the soul hopped up on Prozac,
drenched in self-help effluvium and armed with a pervasive cynicism that would seep
into the next decade and beyond.

It’s almost perfect that Drew Barrymore would go on to
defy her roots as an alcoholic child star and grow up
to produce a movie as sensitive and epochal as “Donnie
,” which is not merely the salvation of the
moribund teen pic genre but a square-peg adolescent
classic to rank up there with “Rushmore” and “Say

A Sundance surprise in a year that craves fresh young
voices more than ever, Richard Kelly‘s “Donnie Darko”
is that almost unheard of example of an indie-minded
production — with garish special effects, no less —
that isn’t spoiled by the Hollywood forces that helped
birth it. It won’t be easy to market, but this
furiously inventive debut eases into the new Sundance
with remarkable aplomb, decimating nearly everything
in its path.

Set in 1988, during George Bush‘s transition to power
(Dukakis jokes fly by in abundance), “Donnie Darko”
unravels in a crisp upper-middle-class Virginia suburb
where everything looks great on the surface but
threatens to dislodge and crumble at any second. The
Darko brood, a Spielbergian family of five prone to
profanity-laced bickering at the dinner table, revels
in the ordinary until its middle son Donnie (Jake
, in a star-making performance), under
medication for his anti-social behavior, takes to
wandering in fugue states during the night, waking up
on golf courses and city streets with no memory of his

When the fuselage of a jet crashes into the Darko
home, nearly killing Donnie in his bedroom, the
befuddled teen starts to question the logic of the
universe, not to mention his own collapsing sanity.
Haunted by visions of a sinister rabbit creature that
has warned him that the world will end in exactly
twenty eight days, Donnie becomes an unwitting evil
hand in a spree of vandalistic acts that renders him a
discipline case at the local prep school, where
Donnie’s so ahead of the curve that the school
principal refers to his test scores as “intimidating.”
His shrink (Katharine Ross) simply prescribes more
medication. As Donnie grows more aware of his plight
— he begins investigating wormholes as a means of
correcting fate’s cruel hand — the movie
transmogrifies into a loud, effects-laden monster that
succeeds against all odds in holding onto its rich

“Donnie Darko” pays homage to the Spielberg
productions of the Eighties that blinded us with
science (it references “Back to the Future” more than
once) but it’s also rooted in the Lynchian mindfuck of
Blue Velvet,” that other Eighties epochal landmark
that ripped the scalp off of smalltown American
values, reminding us that when we looked inward it was
anything but placid and ordinary.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Donnie’s imaginary
friend — a leering rabbit creature with huge teeth
played by James Duval — is called Frank, because for
every freewheeling Marty McFly stargazer in the
Eighties, there was Frank Booth hovering in the
subconscious to lure us toward the sinister. What
“Donnie Darko” does so well, aside from capturing an
era more astutely than any movie in ages, is to
examine that pivotal moment when America’s young was
torn between innocence and corruption, between
choosing life or giving in to Frank Booth. It’s so
obvious the path we chose, something “Donnie Darko”
considers with a soulful grace that verges on the

With a few exceptions (its cardboard villains, mostly,
an unavoidable factor in teenpics) the movie never
treats its teenaged characters like cream cheese
sculptures masquerading as human beings, as in the
Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze, Jr. teen
angst canon that has soured the teen pic pantheon in
recent years. Like Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything” or
Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” Donnie Darko is one of
those uncategorizable square pegs whose eccentricities
render his heroics all the more compelling.

Even more refreshing are the movie’s adult characters,
specifically Donnie’s parents (Mary McDonnell and
Holmes Osborne) and Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle as a
pair of authority-questioning high school teachers
torn between bucking the system and holding on to
their jobs — managing to be noble without reaching
the saccharine levels of someone like Paul Dooley in
Sixteen Candles.” On the flip side of that coin are
the movie’s hilarious adult villains, including
Patrick Swayze, in a priceless casting coup, as the
host of a motivational program called Cunning Visions
who’s secretly running a kiddie porn dungeon in the
basement of his tacky Edwardian-style mansion. A
testament to Richard Kelly‘s scathing wit, let’s not
forget the Reagan-era blockbuster that Swayze danced
his way through in the mid-Eighties.

At times, “Donnie Darko” tries too hard to be a
Reaganite riff on “American Beauty” — its depiction
of suburban anomie isn’t original by any means and its
Christ-like crucifixion conclusion nearly collapses
under its own bombastic, special effects-laden weight.
The two-hour movie could easily lose fifteen minutes
— it takes far too long to set Donnie’s heroic,
metaphysical mission in motion and it’s questionable
whether the current generation of teens will be hip to
the onslaught of Eighties references that course
through the picture like lightning bolts.

But every time “Donnie Darko” threatens to veer into
the formulaic, writer-director Kelly (who looks like
he’s still a teenager himself) manages to cough up
some wildly original moment like a nefarious school
talent show in which a squadron of pre-teen
cheerleaders called Sparkle Motion performs a
lascivious routine to the Pet Shop Boys‘ “West End
” that naturally earns the girls a slot on Star
. A movie geek’s wet dream for the ages, “Donnie
Darko” should leave the underdog in us all swooning in
nostalgia. . . the time of our lives, indeed.

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