Black Hole

Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia wilts under the weight of a circuitous script and an ensemble's worth of bad acting.

For years, films from Chinatown to L.A. Confidential have slipped beneath the sparkly, skin-deep glamour of Los Angeles and drilled down to its voracious, diseased heart. Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia is the second serious film this summer to use a true-story, unsolved mystery as a metaphor for the town's frantic fan-dance with the devil. Sadly, it's the first to fail miserably in its efforts.

Director Allen Coulter's recent Hollywoodland spotlights the lower rung of the celebrity ladder ' and the death grip of a near-mafioso studio system ' by focusing on the mysterious death of TV star George Reeves. The Black Dahlia steps down, straight into the muck, by sharing parts of the story of Elizabeth Short, a wannabe actress gruesomely mutilated and thrown into a Los Angeles field in 1947. Her murder was never solved. Both films want to be about the ugly side of a bold and beautiful way of life, about the high price of illusion and the siren song of corruption, about the history of Hollywood and the history of man. But where Hollywoodland projects a wistful, thoroughly grown-up aura, The Black Dahlia falters. Too much script, not enough savvy.

Noir has taught us that Los Angeles is a city of angles. It's a sun-sparkling diamond, begging to be touched. Hold it just right, and life can be good, bathed in diamond shine. Grabbed the wrong way, its cutting edges can slice through tenet and tendon. Best-selling author James Ellroy has written about this world like few others. His nigh-impossible to adapt L.A. Confidential ultimately made a stunning, Oscar-winning film; it worked when it honestly shouldn't have, thanks to a truly artful Brian Helgeland script and Curtis Hanson's gritty direction and pseudo-romantic vibe. The Black Dahlia is haunted by Confidential's success.

Dahlia's first problem is that it isn't really about the Black Dahlia very much at all. It's about two cops (Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett), a scared-straight ex-prostitute playing house with one of them and footsie with the other (Scarlett Johansson), and a vamped-up black widow of a socialite (Hilary Swank) and her insanely rich and richly insane family (John Kavanagh, Fiona Shaw and Rachel Miner). The way in which screenwriter Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) frames the film makes the sad Short, played by the intriguing Mia Kirshner (Exotica), seem a mere footnote to the proceedings. (Curiously, Swank and Kirshner's characters are said to look alike. Whatever.)

Dahlia is another of Ellroy's unblurbable plots, a twisted tale of police corruption and personal betrayal. Hardboiled cops Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) navigate the Los Angeles Police Department, grabbing headlines and becoming heroes and fast friends, until the Dahlia case blows them apart. Blanchard swaggers through the early parts of the film ' his boxing buddies call him "Mr. Fire" ' but he harbors a secret that he ultimately can't handle. Bleichert ("Mr. Ice") has a better heart, but keeps it under wraps, at least until he manages to get tangled up simultaneously with Johansson's Kay Lake, a hooker-turned-June-Cleaver-with-cleavage, and Swank's Madeleine, a poor little rich girl who likes girls and boys ' but mostly likes getting what she wants.

For such a high-wattage cast, Dahlia suffers from extreme overacting, which in the end proves to be a bigger problem than Friedman's sketchy-yet-smothering script. (It's worth noting that Confidential teetered on the same sharp edge of too much plot, but self-assured actors led by a steady hand kept the balance.) Whatever DePalma saw in the dailies isn't translating to the multiplex. Eckhart chews through his scenes, going from nice guy to unhinged guy in mere seconds. Johannson delivers her signature flatline pout in her typically uninteresting way. Swank tries to step into those stereotypically noir sassy pants ' but shoots right past them, landing squarely in bad drag-queen territory. And poor Hartnett is just in over his head. His earlier work has shown promise ' his quiet Ranger staff sergeant in Black Hawk Down, his smart-mouth hipster in Lucky Number Slevin ' but Dahlia exposes his Leonardo DiCaprio-esque weakness. He's just not quite ready for the man roles yet.

The whole cast, in fact, calls to mind Scott Baio and Jodie Foster playing gangster dress-up in Bugsy Malone. And that's not exactly the kind of acting company one wants to keep. The play-acting atmosphere is exacerbated by DePalma's plastic direction. His most interesting shot selections aren't scenes with his actors; his most interesting shot selections occur in a pair of scenes featuring ... crows. His film simply doesn't have enough soot or soul in it to be taken seriously. In the end, like the Los Angeles Ellroy so often depicts, Dahlia is no diamond after all. It's just a lowly piece of glass that fools the eye for only the shortest of seconds.