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[whitespace] 'Donnie Darko'
The End Is Nigh Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore contemplate extinction 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 at 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 the 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 the obliviousness of his family, Donnie carries out the tasks Frank gives him. He's indebted to the time-traveling bunny for its first tip to leave the house and go out all night: Donnie was spared when a jet-engine turbine crashed into his bed through the roof of his house.

Now, Donnie must cope with his secret knowledge, his life in high school and a flirtation with a similarly troubled girl, Gretchen (Gena Malone), whose mother is in the witness protection program.

Director Richard Kelly, who is 26 years old, offers a sensitivity and imagination that makes this ultimately familiar fantasy tale successful, though his visual skills are very uneven. In closed spaces, like a bedroom or a psychiatrist's office, Kelly is at home. In other moments, such as 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 down. Early on, there's a smart scene of a high school kids arriving 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.

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 drug is this woman on? Drew Barrymore, who executive produced, is awkward playing an English teacher; no sore thumb ever stood out like a slumming film star in an indie film. And Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake's sister in real life, 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.)

In the lead, Jake Gyllenhaal's on the emotionally wet side, as if he'd had 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. At the risk of drowning a new talent in praise, 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, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle and Mary McDonnell, plays valleywide at selected theaters.

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From the November 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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