CAPSULE: MALICE IN WONDERLAND (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Simon Fellows

FEATURING: Maggie Grace, Danny Dyer

PLOT:  American Alice gets amnesia after being hit by a taxicab while fleeing unknown

Still from Malice in Wonderland (2009)

pursuers; she tries to figure out her identity while traveling through a hallucinatory Wonderland of London gangsters.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a diverting weird movie and a must for Alice-adaptation completists, but it’s neither weird nor good enough to be on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.

COMMENTS: Malice in Wonderland may not be the ultimate trip to Wonderland, but you have to give scripter Jayson Rothwell major props for one thing: unlike other “Alice in Wonderland” updates (*cough*, Burton, *cough*), he doesn’t shy away from wordplay and nonsense.  A riddle (delivered by a talking billboard) serves as a major plot point, although the answer is a bit bungled at the end.  Puns are scattered throughout the movie (check out the way Alice steals the tarts), and some characters speak only in rhyming couplets.  Whitey addresses Alice as “Britney,” and when the amnesiac objects that that’s not her name, he shoots back with the Humpty Dumpty-esque rejoinder, “You don’t know who you are, so you don’t know who you aren’t.”  There’s a cleverness to this script and a love of nonsense that goes beyond just re-imagining the beloved characters in a novel setting.  That part’s admirable, but the script also falls into one of the more annoying rabbit holes that plague Alice adaptations; giving Alice a romantic interest (or a platonic boyfriend to serve the same purpose, like Johnny Depp‘s Mad Hatter in the latest Disney version).  Ideally, Alice should wander through Wonderland meeting bizarre entities who help and hinder her in equal parts, with no way of predicting which will come next.  The romantic anchor, always ready to lend Alice his aid and rescue her when things get tough, is an unnecessary safety net and an unwelcome intrusion of Hollywood reality.  In Malice‘s case, the misstep is aggravated by the fact that there’s no real chemistry between leads Maggie Grace and Danny Dyer, and no motivation for them to get together; in fact, their dalliance only distracts from Alice’s quest to rediscover her identity.  Grace’s performance (or her direction) can also be faulted for not being beleaguered and bewildered enough; she’s suddenly thrown into a world of grimy, loony London lowlifes, and accepts the insanity too easily, never seeming the slightest bit endangered or even very concerned.  True, that world seems only a tad bit more off and dangerous than a typical Guy Ritchie movie—the gangsters’ extreme quirkiness defangs them—but a little more fear and urgency would have helped involve the viewer in her plight.  One last criticism: when the movie reverts to reality to wrap up the psychological loose ends, the transition from the psychedelic London underground of hoodlums to the physical London Underground of mass transit is awkward and arbitrary.  Malice may not go very deep, but it’s entertaining, clever, colorful, and zips along at a nice clip.  And what lover of light absurdity won’t respond to a smoky midnight ride with a rapping Rastafarian and a hooker, a mobile brothel in the bed of a sixteen wheeler, continuous trippy flashbacks, and a competition among thugs and con-men to deliver an impressive gift to the gangland kingpin who has everything?

Malice in Wonderland received shockingly low marks from the critics (only a 10% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes?)  A quick analysis of that data reveals the negative reviews coming from the United Kingdom, and they seem to be largely related to some sort of national Danny Dyer fatigue.  Dyer wasn’t spectacular (which may be as much the fault of his part being underwritten as his talent), but I had no objection to the bloke other than his sometimes incomprehensible Cockney accent.  Looking at his résumé, it appears he may be a bit overexposed at the moment, and if he’s repeating basically the same shtick in every BBC role as he does in this movie, I can see how he might grow tiresome.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite its faults, for fleeting moments the movie is both visually striking and enjoyably bizarre, although all too often positioning the camera at a jaunty angle is mistaken for a surreal perspective leading you to spend much of Malice In Wonderland’s 90 minute duration wondering whether a broken tripod is responsible for your skewed view of proceedings.”–Daniel Bettridge, Film 4 (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “alexis.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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