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Doom With a View: Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore don't know what's coming in 'Donnie Darko.'

Bad Bunny

The unbalanced 'Donnie Darko' forestalls the end of the world

By Richard von Busack

NOW IT CAN BE revealed that the end of the world, scheduled for 6am on Nov. 1, 1988, was prevented by the actions of an emotionally troubled upper-class high school student named Donnie Darko.

Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is given a four-week advance notice of doom for Earth. The messenger is Frank, the bunny in the mirror. This phantom from the future is a sneering 6-foot-tall monster, invisible to all others, bearing the same relation to Harvey the Rabbit as James Stewart does to Jack Palance.

Despite medication, therapy and his oblivious family, Donnie carries out the tasks Frank gives him. He owes a debt of gratitude to the time-traveling bunny for its first tip, which was to leave the house and stay out all night--thus sparing Donnie when a jet-engine turbine came hurtling through the roof of his house and crashed into his bed. Now, Donnie must cope with his secret knowledge, his life in high school, and a flirtation with a similarly troubled girl named Gretchen (Gena Malone), whose mother is in the witness protection program.

Donnie Darko is mostly assured filmmaking from 26-year-old director Richard Kelly. Kelly's sensitivity and imagination make this ultimately familiar fantasy tale work, though his visual skills are very uneven. Early on, there's a smart scene of a high school gearing up for the day accompanied by the Tears for Fears hit "Head over Heels." Kelly doesn't take the usual cheap shot about how corny an old song is--he makes the glancing images match the uneasy minor chords of the tune. The scene's a reminder of how untouchable even the recent past is. Kelly is at home in closed spaces, like a bedroom or a psychiatrist's office. In other moments, like a run-on scene of little girls dancing for a pageant, it looks as if he set the camera up and forgot to shut it off.

Mary McDonnell plays Donnie's mother, and it's never really clear if she's in denial about her son's increasingly eccentric behavior. Her sketchy reactions get stranger as the film goes along--you ask yourself, what drugs is this woman on? Drew Barrymore, who executive produced, is awkward playing an English teacher (no sore thumb ever stood out more than a slumming film star in an indie film).

And Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jake's real-life sister) is slighted playing Donnie's sister. Anyone who remembers her as Raven, the pert Satanist in Cecil B. Demented, will be a little unhappy that she didn't get more scenes. As the lead, Jake Gyllenhaal's on the emotionally wet side; as if he'd taken a swim in Dawson's Creek--he does all the reacting for you. He's more pleasurable in the sneaking amusing moments, like when Donnie embarrasses his psychiatrist with the power of his sexual feelings.

Still, Donnie Darko doesn't cheat. The film explains its mysteries, and Kelly's brought out the poetry in a weird but not uncommon tale. I don't want to drown a new talent in praise, but the signs are very good: you don't need to be a visitor from the future to see that Kelly's going places.

Donnie Darko (R; 122 min.), directed and written by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell and Noah Wyle, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon.

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From the October 24-31, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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