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film: Room for Improvement

Jodie Foster’s in full kick-butt mode, but “Panic Room” exasperates as often as it thrills.

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And let me tell you, as a mom defending her daughter against male predators, Foster wields a sledgehammer with chilling, dead-on accuracy.

She’s Meg Altman, a single mom with a daughter (Kristen Stewart) who moves into a posh townhouse whose former owner was an eccentric millionaire. Urban myth has it that the guy hid the bulk of his wealth in a secret, “safe” room. Straight from divorce court and the Connecticut ‘burbs, Meg and 11-year-old daughter Sarah decide the four-story Manhattan brownstone is the perfect way to stick it to Daddy (Patrick Bauchau), who left them both for a supermodel.



Halfheartedly nibbling pizza their first night in the new place, mother and daughter have no idea how much worse their situation will become. Not only does Mother Nature brew up a nasty storm to creep them out, but fate sends thieves to threaten their lives.



Burnham (Forest Whitaker), the trio’s mastermind, apparently didn’t bother to read the “Times’” property-transfer section and is less than thrilled to discover the place is now occupied. Adding to his frustrations, he not only has to put up with blabbermouth cohort Junior (Jared Leto) but creepy new crew member Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). Waking up in the nick of time, Meg and Sarah race the thieves to the tiny safe room. As we know from the movie’s trailer, the two just barely make it. While trying to catch her breath, Meg reaches for the phone. Wouldn’t you know it, the phone’s not working.



Watching the thieves on the room’s security cameras, Meg tries to bluff and scare the men away. They don’t buy it. While brainy Burnham tries to figure a way to lure Meg and Sarah out of the room, his brutish cohorts waste their time and energy attempting to break into the concrete-and-steel fortress with a sledgehammer. Thus begins “Panic Room’s” cat-and-mouse maneuverings, with each side enjoying a key advantage: Meg’s got those security cameras, while Burnham knows the panic room inside and out.



As the battle of nerves intensifies, the opponents take turns setting in motion long-shot ploys. Some are ingenious; some are heart-stoppingly daring; and some come close to working. To keep from spoiling the most suspenseful part of “Panic Room,” that’s all I’ll say.



Although painstakingly plotted, David (“Snake Eyes”) Koepp’s screenplay alternates between clever and stupid. At its best, Koepp’s “Panic Room” will have you on the proverbial edge of your seat. At its worst, Koepp’s drama plays out like “Rear Window for Dummies,” telegraphing every twist and forsaking nuance for obvious and clumsy exposition.



Surprisingly, Fincher abdicates his usual edginess, which made “Seven” so creepy and “The Fight Club” so disturbing. Maybe he needed a rest from the demons of his dark imagination, but whatever the reason, “Panic Room” suffers from Fincher’s apparent apathy. In hindsight, Fincher seems to realize his mistake and has been quoted recently saying “Panic Room” was never intended to be anything but a “popcorn movie.”



What the movie, Fincher and Koepp do get right, however, is the bond between mother and daughter. Foster and Stewart never flirt with cornball greeting-card sentimentality. These two women are under siege and know it. Foster offers up a focused, no-frills performance as Meg. Yes she’s terrified, but she’s going to use all she’s got to save her daughter. And if blood must be shed, so be it.



Simultaneously poignant and terrifying, the battle Foster’s character wages is the stuff of epics. Which is why “Panic Room” can’t be dismissed as mere fodder to sell popcorn to the masses. And why, once your breathing returns to normal, you’ll be frustrated by the thought of how terrific it could have been. S





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