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Looks aren't enough to save 'Cell'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"The Cell" looks spectacular. If only it never opened its mouth.

First-time director Tarsem Singh, a veteran of the music-video scene, crams this excursion into a tortured psyche with so much vividly wondrous imagery that he nearly compensates for a story that takes a while to get going, roars through all the pretty scenery, then stumbles to the finish line as the filmmakers apparently lose interest.

Jennifer Lopez stars as Catherine Deane, the world's most well-coifed psychologist, so intuitively sensitive to her charges' needs that her colleagues regard her as special (sorry, that's about as deep as the analysis of Lopez's character goes).

Thanks to some newly developed interactive psycho-machines, Catherine is able to have her psyche injected into that of another. For months now, she's been visiting the inner workings of a young coma victim's mind, hoping to unlock its secrets and bring him back to reality.

A second story line (and it takes a while for these two to converge) features Vincent D'Onofrio as perverted serial killer Carl Stargher, who kidnaps women, tortures them, drowns them, then rapes them while he hangs suspended from metal rings implanted in his back. As luck would have it, just as the FBI is about to close in on Carl and rescue his latest potential victim, who is secreted away in a remote desert hideaway, he suffers a violent seizure and goes into a coma of his own.

FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) sees no hope of saving the woman until he hears about the work being done by Catherine and her cohorts. He suggests that she peek inside Carl's brain, and see if she can learn where he's hidden his victim.

Of course Catherine's game, and next thing anyone knows, she's inside this sick puppy's disturbed cerebellum. There, she encounters at least a half-dozen different Carls, all played by D'Onofrio (save for one that's his 12-year-old self), and all with some serious issues.

Tarsem (who is usually referred to by his first name) has an amazingly visual imagination, and he lets it loose whenever the action moves inside someone's head.

The film's opening shots of Lopez walking through a desert are as beautiful as they are obtuse, filled with horses, derelict boats and little kids. It's Salvador Dali meets "Lawrence of Arabia," and it's like nothing you've ever seen before.

Things get even better when we see inside Carl's brain, where Dali also seems to reside, but this time as an interior decorator for Beelzebub.

It's only when Tarsem and screenwriter Mark Protosevich get to the story that things fumble. Although "The Cell" seems to have interesting things to say about what makes people bad (both Carl and FBI agent Novak had rough childhoods, but only one turned into a serial killer), nothing is really pursued.

Things happen far too conveniently, such as Carl's seizure only minutes before the FBI breaks his door down, and the story is resolved when one character notices one tiny detail, and suddenly everything becomes artificially clear.

Some may argue that "The Cell" looks so fantastic that none of that matters.

Some are wrong.

'The Cell'

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn and Vincent D'Onofrio

Directed by Tarsem Singh

Released by New Line Cinema

Rated R (bizarre violence and sexual images, nudity and language)

Running time 108 minutes

Sun score: **1/2

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