Fantastic Four

(2005) ** Pg-13
106 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Tim Story. Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon.

Watching 20th Century Fox's Fantastic Four is like picking through a salad after not getting what you ordered. Some of it's edible, but after a few minutes, it's not worth the trouble, you get frustrated, and you send it back. Fantastic Four will please only the least fussy of patrons; anyone with taste and discrimination will be squirming well before the halfway point. If Fox is smart, they're hard-selling this to the grade-school crowd, who probably won't notice that common sense takes a holiday every couple of minutes.

As conceived in 1961 by comic-book writer Stan Lee and artist-collaborator Jack Kirby, the Fantastic Four are Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), and her brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans). Astronauts who are a little too gung-ho for NASA, the four blunder into a cosmic cloud and emerge with strange powers: Reed becomes the rubberized Mr. Fantastic, able to stretch into any shape; Ben mutates permanently into a super-strong, rock-hard creature dubbed "the Thing"; Sue becomes "Invisible Girl," with the added ability to generate force fields, while "Human Torch" Johnny can fly when he spontaneously combusts.

Like most long-running comics, Fantastic Four has been continually reinvented, allowing filmmakers the freedom to tinker. Here, their arch-nemesis Victor von Doom (of the Latverian von Dooms) gets his scarring and energy-harnessing ability the same way the heroes do: on board von Doom's ill-fated space station. As in the comics, the maniacally jealous industrialist-despot (Julian McMahon, well-cast) blames Richards for his fate and resents the celebrity of the Four, who are quickly dubbed heroes by their fellow New Yorkers. Since the big-screen Four invariably destroy a four-block radius whenever they come to the "rescue," their fast friendship with New Yorkers seems dubious.

The choice to economize the Fantastic Four-Doom rivalry is a good one that illustrates moral choice, especially when faced with an extraordinary challenge. But the good ideas pretty much screech to a halt right there. After a slow learning curve as to the nature of their mutations, the plot loses all momentum. Doom gets incrementally angrier over the next hour, as his condition worsens, then he finally adopts the appearance of supervillain Doctor Doom and attacks the Fantastic Four. As the titles say, "THE END." The "second act," then, stutters along with poorly developed in-fighting amongst the heroes and, worst of all, a scene in which Johnny suits up to do motocross at the X Games (hey, extreme product placement!); this is a sequel to the scene in which Johnny takes his nurse on an extreme helicopter-drop/snowboarding date.

Johnny says of the mutation, "Am I the only guy who thinks this is cool?"; since his character's one-dimension is that he's an extreme ass, Evans plays that note loudly and repeatedly. Reed is a nerdy putz who can't quite get up the gumption to be a man with Sue, whose only character trait is that she secretly wants Reed to be a man. Gruffudd tries too hard to overcome his natural stiffness (and his natural Welsh accent), while Alba doesn't try hard enough to, well, act. As in the comics, Ben Grimm is the best character, a tortured Frankenstein who didn't ask to be "born" this way. Grimm learns to harness his anger for good, and re-cultivates his briefly dormant sense of humor. Ideally cast Chiklis (TV's The Shield) does good work behind The Thing's tough hide, but it's clear he's languishing in director Tim Story's expensive folly.

The production's troubled history (a decade of rewrites, budget overruns, reshoots to dodge the FF-inspired The Incredibles, bad test screening, and endless reediting) shows in the final product, a transparent salvage job with terrible editing and a weak score by John Ottman. Surprisingly, the special effects are mostly up to snuff, with the Four's powers appropriately translated to the screen until the clearly rejiggered finale. One-time director Columbus remains onboard as producer, but presumably his input went the way of the dodo when he gave up the director's chair.

The screenplay is attributed to Mark Frost and Michael France, though Simon Kinberg and at least two others go uncredited. Despite the mish-mash results, the script has its bright spots, arranging for some of the comic's most iconic images, catch-phrases ("Flame on!" and "It's clobberin' time!"), and character dynamics (Johnny and Ben go at it regularly). Stan Lee does his requisite cameo, here as kindly mailman Willie Lumpkin, and Kerry Washington passes through as Grimm's blind love interest Alicia Masters, though her short scenes are atrocious (both characters derive from the comics).

Too many writers at cross-purposes and desperate editing lead to baffling plot holes. Early on, a six-minute deadline passes in twenty seconds of real-time action, and repeated talk of Richards' debts (we even see his overdue bills) goes immediately out the window as he apparently hires crews to come into his offices and erect brand-new, state-of-the-art equipment. So much of the film is bungled with inept storytelling and watered-down dialogue, and Story is so powerless to right the course, that Fantastic Four winds up more dopey than fun.

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