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WINGING IT: A plane surveys the crumbling infrastructure of L.A. in '2012.'

Demolition, Man

Roland Emmerich's disaster epic '2012' features urban renewal and family encounter sessions

By Richard von Busack

WATCHING L.A. take a beating is always refreshing, and there are a few minutes in 2012 that are absolutely high art: a lovingly detailed sequence of downtown L.A. wobbling on all sides of a mile-deep fissure in the earth, the skyscrapers dancing around its brink or keeling over in slow faints. A stretch limo scoots around these twisting monoliths trying to get to a comfortable cruising altitude; meanwhile, the unquiet earth rises up on both sides of the escarpment until it's a crescent-shaped motif. Then, the UNESCO World Heritage Site (What? It isn't? What the hell is up with that?) concrete advertising sign of Randy's Donuts wheels through the chaos, as if inviting the car to take the proverbial flying you know what at a rolling donut.

Being Roland Emmerich, the director must cut away from this splendor to John Cusack, his ex-wife Amanda Peet and his family (adorable daughter and bratty son who keeps calling him by his first name instead of Dad) and the ex-wife's new squeeze, an expendable plastic surgeon (Thomas McCarthy). The ensemble pulls the appropriate sorrow-and-the-pity reactions to all the destruction we've been giggling at. The follow-up has Santa Monica sliding into the ocean, as predicted by ancient prophecies going back to the mid-1970s. The gang is on a long trip to China, where the world's powers have been preparing for just such an eventuality. "We were warned" says the posters, and you were fully warned by the previews. ("The nutbags with the cardboard signs got it right!" Cusack blurts.)

No surprise, 2012 is a film of sequences and of wildly uneven tone. Boring family bonding is enlivened with riding around the chaos in ever-larger vehicles: from stretch limo to a private plane, risibly named "The Western Spirit." Eventually, the shell-shocked cast ends up in an Antonov 500, the imaginary larger version of the world's largest fixed-wing aircraft, the Antonov 225. The six-engine monster is our vantage point for the last implosions in Las Vegas. Many of the world's other cities get it, too. The Vatican barrel-rolls onto the praying faithful. In blurry green-screen, the Washington Monument swats a patriotic crowd. With an eye on the Obama victory, Emmerich has made 2012 gratifyingly Africanistic, right up to the film's last shot. The film has a virtuous (not to say gelded) courtship between a slightly embarrassed Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. About to be clobbered by an aircraft carrier, U.S. President Danny Glover goes out addressing his dead wife with a Redd Foxx–worthy "I'm coming home, Dorothy."

There's more of an aspect of subversion in 2012 that we've seen in previous Emmerich monstrosities; the film balances out its straight-faced idiocies with conspiracy and rich creeps—the Queen of England, Angela Merkel and the prime minister of Canada are among the plotters. The film soft-pedals the spiritual mumbo-jumbo, except for a Tibetan lama performing the ancient Zen proverb about the too-full cup. The leaded last 45 minutes have Cusack floundering in the studio tank. Fun's over, and we can wait for the moral of the story: Better the whole world be inundated, and the South Pole relocated to Wisconsin, than one American nuclear family should be sundered.

Movie Times 2012 (PG-13; 158 min.), directed by Roland Emmerich, written by Emmerich and Harald Kloser, photographed by Dean Semler and starring John Cusack , opens Nov. 13.

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