One star (out of four)
If Edgar Allen Poe were alive today, working as a Hollywood screenwriter (God forbid), I suspect he’d be penning not the abysmal script for The Raven but something called The Fall of the House of Cusack.
He’d be unable to resist the tragic story of a bright comedy star, John Cusack by name, who couldn’t resist the fatal attraction of dramatic roles that have rarely suited his boyish charms. (See, or rather don’t see: Max, Grace is Gone, Runaway Jury.)
Cusack takes a horrific step into the career crypt with The Raven. He actually plays Poe, but it’s not a version of the late Baltimore literary figure that any serious reader would recognize or admire.
The film takes a slim kernel of fact and pops it into an oily bucket of corn. It posits what might have happened in the four days before Poe was found on Oct. 7, 1849, incoherent and near death, on a Baltimore park bench.
What was Poe doing that made him ponder, weak and weary? Why, quoth The Raven, he was chasing a serial killer who was perpetuating ghastly crimes inspired by the horror master’s vivid imagination and fleet pen.
Poe was also wooing a winsome rich lass (Alice Eve), enraging her tycoon papa (Brendan Gleeson), vexing the local crime investigator (Luke Evans) and feeding human hearts (don’t ask) to a pet raccoon named Carl.
Cusack’s pompous Poe is a regular Rasputin. He can solve clues like Sherlock, chase evildoers like Indy and write one of his horror masterpieces in a flat three hours — using a fountain pen, yet. All while indulging a thirst for alcohol that could topple a longshoreman.
It’s all very silly, prompting much unintended audience laughter when it isn’t just plain boring. Who would have guessed that gruesome deaths could be so dull?
Main blame goes to director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and screenwriters Ben Livingstone and Hannah Shakespeare. They try way too hard to ape the success of Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes franchise, which is no raving hell but seems like Shakespeare next to this.
Cusack must also answer for this folly of forsaking his comic destiny.
Should he ever again attempt drama after this? Nevermore!
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.