on January 21, 2015
(Truthfully, I feel this is more of a 3.5 star effort, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for reasons I'll elaborate upon.)
I should start off by warning the reader that I can't adequately review this film - either on its own merits, or as an adaptation of the novel - without at least touching upon a small handful of major spoilers. Therefore, if one *really* doesn't want to have any of the large twists ruined, it might be best not to continue.
After all of the terrible reviews I've read of this movie here and elsewhere, I came into this with extremely low expectations, but was very pleasantly surprised. I had almost literally *just* finished reading the book this movie was based on, however, and I have some thoughts on this point.
First of all, it's important to note the fact that it's fairly obvious a large portion of the negative reviewers have never read the book: the overwhelming majority of the criticism heaped upon this movie that doesn't have to do with the acting has to do with factors inherent to the original story and the adaptation thereof. Read a synopsis and reviews of the book, first; Ellroy admits to taking quite a few liberties with the facts of the actual case for the sake of...well, for the sake of his own catharsis about his mother, if you read his essay on the matter (which comes as the new afterword to recent editions of the book). So, no, if you're looking for a 100% factual accounting of the Elizabeth Short murder case and investigation, you're not going to find it here. And people who read a lot of mystery/thriller novels of this length (as opposed to the older and much shorter 200-ish page novels by the likes of Hammett, Chandler, et al.) will know how dicey it can be to adapt a dense, story-driven 300+ page novel into a movie of under 3 hours. Depending on the precise source material, this task can range from difficult to impossible. With Ellroy's narrative focus bouncing around from topic to topic like an easily-distracted kitten (in some cases, he doesn't even stay on a single line of investigation within the *same page*), multiple distinct climaxes followed by points where the book could have ended logically, and a tremendous number of dead-ends that don't end up having any bearing on the case, this book clearly edged towards the "impossible" end of that spectrum: the original cut of this film was over 3 hours, and De Palma had to edit an hour of it out, which is a primary reason for many of the film's pacing and storyline issues. I suspect it still would have felt harried even with the extra hour, given how much of the novel they had to leave out. (I suppose I should add that I'm not necessarily a particular fan of Brian De Palma, so I'm not just some loyal apologist.)
Second, for those who have actually read the book, I pose *the* important (and largely ignored in the other reviews) question: was this movie a good adaptation of the book? I would have to say yes, very much so. It's undeniable that, due to the immense scope and density of the book (which included multiple-chapter trips to Boston, New Jersey, Tijuana and Ensenada that were all dropped for the film), entire plot threads; subplots; and even major characters had to be dropped for time, and several major and important story elements (Bucky Bleichert's fall from grace, Lee Blanchard's death, the extent of Lee's corruption and Kay Lake's involvement therein, the Sprague/Linscott family's ultimate fates) had to be altered to accommodate these changes. But they were tweaked in ways that still work well in the overall context and story of the film. Ellroy spends an inordinate amount of time and ink on the Fire & Ice duo's infatuation/fixation on Elizabeth "Betty" Short/The Dahlia - though De Palma eschews the Bleichert narration from the book which literally states as much, it manages to come through quite nicely in a very subtle way with the sequences of Bucky viewing Betty's screen tests. One thing I often use as a barometer for how well a movie adapts a book is how much dialog from the book makes it through to the film unaltered, and many of the important scenes jumped out at me in this regard (it's tough to forget the phrase "tighter than a crab's ass" once you've heard it).
The production design, one of the most important things for a period piece in our increasingly superficial film culture, was astonishingly immersive and well-done - I stop just short of saying *completely* "authentic," however, because the large part of me that's obsessed with 1930s/40s imagery (as a card-carrying member of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles) can pick apart a few anachronisms, inaccuracies, and (most commonly) improbabilities within the setting and design. Still, it's all quite beautifully-done, and - to the casual, non-pedant observer - quite period-accurate. Most importantly, it also met my expectations as to what the set pieces would have looked like as I was reading the book. The musical score is alarmingly similar to Goldsmith's for "LA Confidential" - a good thing insofar as it was appropriate to the story and aesthetics, even if lacking in originality.
Ultimately, what hurts this film most are all the things that people have already pointed out: story flaws, mediocre acting, its pacing and ponderous length. I've already addressed the writing- and editing-related issues, insofar as they're largely inherent to and inherited from the source novel. I didn't find the acting to be any great "nails on a chalkboard"-type stumbling block, but I would agree none of the main players deserved particular recognition. I was rather impressed with Mia Kirshner's "screen test" performances as Betty Short, however. Through these, and her, we see the character Ellroy intended to portray: the inept actress and tragic figure. Some have said that this film can't decide whether to embrace or parody the film noir tropes and cliches, but I didn't notice this to any great extent. Indeed, the movie actually tones down several of the most egregious introspective examples of this from Ellroy's novel (the aforementioned example of Bucky viewing Betty's screen tests standing in for his outright obsession with her in so many words of narration, the omission of numerous examples of his lusting for Short after-the-fact).
Still, as an adaptation of the novel, I don't find enough of these things here for me to consider this film anything besides what it is: a just "good" adaptation of an excellent, albeit flawed, novel. Overall, I don't really know what, if anything (or how much), could have been done to improve upon this, given the source material. It's the sort of thing that really would have stood best as a mini-series - each of the novel's four "sections" as an hour-long episode - allowing writer, director, and designer to really spread their wings without having to edit out or alter too much of the original novel.
I recommend this movie to people who enjoyed the book, albeit with the caveat that it helps one's ability to follow it if the book is still quite fresh in one's mind. I would cautiously recommend it to people fond of noir fiction (particularly neo-noir films) and 1940s aestetics, but not strongly, for all of the aforementioned reasons.