There is a phrase my wife and I often use about TV shows, movies and books whose plots go terribly awry.
“It’s a bit Scooby Doo,” is our equivalent of “jumping the shark”.
‘Homeland’ and ‘Lost’ are good examples of TV dramas that went a bit Scooby Doo after promising first seasons.
‘Cracker’ went Scooby Doo when Fitz found himself in Hong Kong.
Soap operas like ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Eastenders’ go Scooby Doo all the time, while Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’ movies took going Scooby Doo onto a whole new level.
A year and a half ago, Gillian Flynn, a former TV critic with the magazine Entertainment Weekly, went Scooby Doo with her third novel ‘Gone Girl’ but, despite this, it was a huge bestseller.
After all the hype around ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, Flynn’s thriller about a marriage gone rancid was hailed as a literary sensation. ‘Gone Girl’ sold two million copies worldwide and was lauded by critics in the US including Time, USA Today, the New York Times, the New Yorker & Entertainment Weekly.
It was well received also on this side of the Atlantic, with the Guardian declaring it a contender for thriller of the year.
And on the strength of those reviews, I purchased ‘Gone Girl’ and devoured the novel over the course of a weekend in Co Wicklow.
A third of the way into Flynn’s novel, it was clear the plot was a bit Scooby Doo and by its conclusion, it was elaborately Scooby Doo.
Nevertheless, the success of ‘Gone Girl’ meant Hollywood came calling and it didn’t take a genius to work out that David Fincher was the director they would turn to to adapt it.
Fincher is a skilful filmmaker who relishes telling tales of moral ambiguity and extreme cruelty.
‘Seven’, ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Zodiac’ are stunning movies that tap into very dark themes.
But Fincher is not infallible on this terrain.
‘The Game’ with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn promised to go into dark areas but ultimately was too gimmicky, failing to live up to its initial premise.
‘Panic Room’ with Jodie Foster undoubtedly had its moments but was not nearly as narratively satisfying as it could have been.
Meanwhile Fincher’s last film, the adaptation of the Scandi crime novel ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ with Daniel Craig was a complete misfire. While it performed well at the box office, it was as dull as dishwater and was deservedly slated by critics.
We all know by now Fincher’s signature tricks.
There’s lots of dark cinematography in most of his films, usually from Jeff Cronenweth, and an avant garde score from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross to accompany the chilling violence perpetrated by tortured characters.
But in taking on Flynn’s overrated novel, are there any signs that has Fincher’s style has evolved?
‘Gone Girl’ is about a dream couple, Nick and Amy Dunne (played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) who meet in New York.
Both are smart, devilshly attractive writers who have a sickly sweet relationship that inevitably leads to marriage.
Amy is the real life inspiration for a series of popular children’s storybooks ‘Amazing Amy’, written by her parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) and the source of her trust fund.
But their idyllic married life in the Big Apple comes to a juddering halt when Nick loses his job and his mother gets Stage 4 cancer, with the couple moving to Missouri – much to Amy’s chagrin.
Cracks soon start to emerge in their marriage and one day Nick returns home to find his wife has disappeared on his wedding anniversary with signs of a struggle in the living room.
When hometown detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Glipin (Patrick Fugit) arrive at the house, they immediately grasp not everything about the crime scene is plausible.
And when a series of clues that Amy left for a wedding anniversary treasure hunt are discovered, boneheaded Nick increasingly comes under suspicion for murdering his wife.
But if he has murdered Amy, where’s her body? Or is Amy still alive and really pulling the strings?
Unlike ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, the author of ‘Gone Girl’ is not only still around for Fincher to consult but actually onboard as the sole screenwriter.
And therein lies the problem.
Because while Flynn does her best to condense her novel into two hours and 20 minutes, she is wedded to a misanthropic plot that stretches credulity and to characters who are not nuanced and just deeply unpleasant.
Flynn’s novel and screenplay are fashioned around two central characters who quite frankly aren’t likeable even when they are at their best and the writer’s world weary cynicism is affected and boring.
Her satirical take on trial by media is heavy handed a la Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural Born Killers’.
And while Fincher’s film may reach for Hitchcockian style suspense, it actually feels as schlocky, camp and disposable as Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Basic Instinct’.
You cannot help feeling Fincher and Flynn could have done with an outsider’s eye – a veteran screenwriter who was prepared to radically rework a flawed original novel.
Technically, however, you typically cannot fault Fincher.
The director delivers a competent and slick looking thriller – Cronenweth conjures up impressive visuals, Kirk Baxter’s film editing keeps the show rolling along and Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is as clinical and striking as you’d expect.
But just like ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, there is an icy coldness at the heart of the film.
Affleck and Pike are dull in the central roles, while Neil Patrick Harris from ‘How I Met Your Mother’ turns up as a creepy ex-boyfriend of Amy’s but cannot quite summon up memories of Anthony Perkins.
Missi Pyle is simply cartoonish as the cable TV host, Ellen Abbott.
In fact some of the best performances in the movie are in more peripheral roles.
Dickens is effective as the small-town detective tasked with piecing together the mystery around Amy’s disappearance.
Tyler Perry shines as a celebrated defence attorney, Tanner Bolt and Carrie Coon impresses as Nick’s twin sister, Margo.
Scoot McNairy illuminates the screen for the short time he is onscreen as a former boyfriend of Amy’s.
But these are rare points of light in a dull film, which is not as clever as it thinks it is.
Like the novel, ‘Gone Girl’ presents a misanthropic vision of a world populated by fakes, psychopaths and cheaters.
It’s a world of convoluted plots, which are about as believable as Scooby Doo.
Having shifted gear so successfully with ‘The Social Network’, Fincher appears to have regressed in his last two films.
‘Gone Girl’ may have already passed the $200 million mark at the box office but will we really remember it as a movie that can hold a candle to ‘Seven’? I doubt it.