It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when Neil LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man completely jumps the tracks. For some, it will be the scene where Nicolas Cage, in dire need of transportation, turns a gun on a passing bicyclist and melodramatically commands: “Step. Away. From. The Bike." For others, it will be the fight scene that ends with Cage delivering a karate kick to a feisty Leelee Sobieski. (That that, bee-yotch!) But for most, the point of no return will arrive during an extended climactic sequence that calls for Cage to pad about in a tacky bear costume. It’s so hilarious, it’s almost, well, unbearable.
As I note in my Variety review: When a major studio release with two Oscar-winning stars (Cage and Ellen Burstyn) opens without press previews, one usually assumes the distributor is trying to hide the picture from critics. But in the case of Wicker Man, which wasn't screened until 10 pm Thursday here in Houston, it's entirely possible that Warner Bros. wanted to hide a ludicrous misfire – for as long as possible, at least – from audiences as well. Much funnier by accident than many intentional comedies, it’s bound to spark outbreaks of spontaneous laughter wherever it’s exposed to paying customers. Once derisive word of mouth starts to spread, only connoisseurs of high camp and curious devotees of disasters will be queuing up at the box-office.
After writing all that, and worse, and seeing it posted online, I was prepared for a dose of vitriolic sarcasm when I received an e-mail from LaBute this afternoon. Lo and behold, however, the note was a graciously polite missive in which the writer-director acknowledged my criticism with a philosophic shrug, and encouraged me to "keep up the good work."
But you know what? I've read this note again and again, and I still can't helping thinking of Aaron Eckhart in LaBute's In the Company of Men, and Jason Patric in his Your Friends and Neighbors -- charming fellows both, until they dropped their masks. Yeah, LaBute may be all grace and good manners now. But if I look out in my backyard tomorrow, and see a towering figure constructed from wicker, well....