Donnie Darko

I’m predicting “Donnie Darko” will be the year’s most overrated film. It smells like the kind of movie that wants you to think it’s really deep, causing people to claim they loved it even though they actually found it incomprehensible.

I defy you to tell me what this movie is about and point out portions of it to support your theory. It’s occasionally about the opposite emotions of love and fear and what falls in between them, but it’s also sometimes about fate and predestination. For that matter, sometimes it’s a character study, and other times it’s a science-fiction time-travel fantasy. But it is none of these things long enough or with enough commitment to develop any of them. As a result, it’s a mish-mash of disparate, non-cohesive ideas, the sort of film that thinks it’s brilliant just because no one understands it.

Maddeningly, it also has a lot going for it. Jake Gyllenhaal (who you loved if you saw “October Sky”) plays the title character, an upper-class suburban high-schooler beset with visions of a human-size demon rabbit (the anti-Harvey, I guess) who tells him to do things like flood the school and set fire to people’s houses. Gyllenhaal gives a wonderful, brooding performance, lending realism to a character surrounded by surrealism.

There are some delicious characters, too, including Patrick Swayze as a lubricious self-help guru (think Tom Cruise in “Magnolia,” only more grating) and Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s concerned mother. Katharine Ross as Donnie’s therapist and Holmes Osbourne as his dad turn in expert performances, too. (Ignore Drew Barrymore, who is stilted and weird as Donnie’s English teacher, and who I’m guessing got the part because she executive produced the thing.)

It has a glorious soundtrack, too, as it’s set in 1988 and uses several great popular songs from that year. (Any movie that opens with INXS’s kickin’ “Never Tear Us Apart” has something going for it, as far as I’m concerned.) There’s also quite a bit of witty, entertaining dialogue.

But back to the story. Frank the devil rabbit regularly makes Donnie get up in the middle of the night and wander around town. One such evening, he tells Donnie that the world will end in a few weeks. Shortly after he tells him this, a jet engine mysteriously falls from the sky and crashes through Donnie’s bedroom. Had Frank not led Donnie out of it, he would certainly have been killed. Now Donnie knows to trust the prophetic Frank, or something.

This includes suddenly becoming more assertive than he’s ever been, telling off his witchy gym teacher, as well as the aforementioned self-help idiot. He gets a girlfriend, too, a new student named Gretchen (Jena Malone).

Frank keeps asking Donnie if he believes in time travel, so Donnie asks his science teacher (Noah Wyle) about it. He lends him a book that happens to have been written, years ago, by the local 100-year-old crazy woman, who spends her days walking from the middle of the street to her mailbox and back again. Donnie begins to see forward into time, sort of: He can see a gel-like trail leading from people’s chests toward wherever they’re about to go, thus giving him the skill of knowing someone’s about to walk across the room before they actually do. (Why this is a skill, I don’t know. I also don’t know why Donnie can only do it every now and then.)

Will the world end the day after Halloween, as predicted by Frank? If so, what can Donnie do about it? How do time travel and the senile mailbox-tender relate to it all? Why the occasional harping on hypocrisy as it pertains to Swayze’s character and others? What does Frank the rabbit represent? Whatever the symbol is, is it totally undermined by the revelation of Frank’s real-life basis?

These questions, and many others, are raised but not answered. In fact, they’re barely even addressed. The ending is most perplexing. One can almost see Donnie as a hero or a savior, except that the way things turn out is monstrously confusing, making us second-guess the entire film.

“Donnie Darko” is not boring, I’ll give it that. High-caliber performances and unusual goings-on keep it interesting. But it’s the sort of “interesting” that also makes us enjoy dreaming when we sleep: Anything can happen, and it’s fun to continue watching just to see where it goes. You can read a lot into it if you want, but chances are you’re looking for depth where there is none.

(Note: When the film premiered at Sundance, it had the INXS song in it, as mentioned in this review. From what I’m told by approximately 50 billion “Donnie Darko” fans who write to tell me how wrong I am about the movie, however, the song was replaced with something else for its subsequent theatrical release. Be assured, the removal of the INXS song does not impact my review; if anything, it make me like the film even less.)

C- (; R, frequent harsh profanity, some vivid sexual imagery, some violence.)