Mythic Chutzpah: The Fall is a visual and messy feast

The Fall
Starring Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, and Justine Waddell
Directed by Tarsem Singh
Rated R

Like filmmakers David Fincher and Spike Jonze, The Fall director Tarsem Singh took a road oft traveled to feature films, producing commercials for brands like Nike and Levi's and also music videos for groups from En Vogue to R.E.M.

But the music video bag of tricks — operatic emotions, jaw-dropping costumes, and visual storytelling — don't always cut it in feature films. Film requires a more subdued touch and a storyline that meets the demands of a longer time frame. Singh struggles with those issues. The transition of music video sensibility to feature-length film mirrors cinema's historical shift from silent to sound, and a comparable need for a stylistic downshift.

Indian director Singh's second film following 2000's The Cell is an undeniable visual spectacle that begins in black and white, but quickly shifts a la The Wizard of Oz to color. It's color that could only be described as hallucinatory: ruby reds, golds, and saffron yellows to rival any vintage Technicolor production. The similarities to The Wizard of Oz don't end there; Singh's film blends real-life and fantasy much the way Dorothy encountered people from her Kansas life recast in new form in Oz.

The Fall's adventuresome Dorothy is a five-year-old Romanian girl, Alexandria, (Catinca Untaru) who is in a 1915 California hospital recuperating a broken arm. Like Singh's omnivorous camera, Alexandria roams the hospital. She begins to visit with a silent movie stunt-man Roy (Lee Pace) doubly burdened by a broken heart and confined to his bed after a disastrous fall. Roy strikes a disturbing bargain with the girl that in a less fantastical plot line would feel unbearably creepy: If she'll pilfer some morphine from the hospital pharmacy to put him out of his misery, he'll reward her with a violence-filled story to keep her on the edge of his bed.

Each day Alexandria scrambles into bed with Roy for more tales of five men (including Charles Darwin, a former slave and a gun powder expert) traveling the globe anxious to destroy the evil Governor Odious. The overwrought, operatic tone of these fantasy segments of the five adventurers, with their knife play and quests for revenge, suggest Terry Gilliam crossed with Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung. There are whirling dervishes, dreadlocked mystics, villains dressed in horrifying metal executioner hoods, beautiful princesses whose elaborate costumes suggest science fiction, and enough male bravado to rival the sinew spectacle of 300. Dialogue is as florid as the visuals, as when Princess Evelyn (played by Justine Waddell, a nurse in the hospital scenes) tells the story's hero, the Black Bandit (Lee Pace), who hijacks her caravan, "I was like a bird in a golden cage. By freeing me, you've captured my heart."

In the fantasy segments that begin to dominate the film, colors, costumes, and action are equally vivid. Shot in locations including China, Romania, Egypt, and Cambodia, The Fall also boasts a costume designer, Eiko Ishioka, who has collaborated with Björk, Cirque de Soleil, and Francis Ford Coppola in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

As the story progresses, masks are removed and details from Roy and Alexandria's reality begin to seep into the story. The Fall takes its stilted, excessive tone from their flights of fancy and altered states defined by morphine and childhood. Some of The Fall's most vivid moments have the timbre of childhood memories, small details that become emotionally enormous over time.

The Fall is an encounter with the mythic in human history and you want to give Singh a pat on the back for his chutzpah, even if the film itself registers as terrifyingly self-indulgent and often incoherent.

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