Relocating Jack the Ripper from Whitechapel to West Hollywood, David Ondaatje’s “The Lodger” seems intended to leave its audience as baffled as the London police were in 1888. Never mind that it rains constantly along Ondaatje’s Sunset Strip, or that the melodrama arrives like a monsoon. What needed to be a taut, structurally sound psychothriller instead malfunctions from the start. Name cast could help ancillary sales, but “The Lodger” looks like a temporary B.O. guest at best.
Quasi-hysterical police detective Chandler Manning (the usually reliable Alfred Molina) finds himself investigating a case fraught with public and private peril: A killer is slaughtering prostitutes along the 9000 block of Sunset Boulevard (between the Starbucks and the all-night nail salon, apparently,) in a manner identical to the m.o. of a killer Manning put away some time earlier.
Did Manning prosecute the wrong man? Is there a new killer who — like the man Manning apprehended — is fixated on the techniques of Jack the Ripper, whose brief, bloody spree terrorized Victorian London 120 years earlier? And what about the situation over at the Burlings, where Ellen (Hope Davis) and Joe (Donal Logue) have rented out their guest house to the mysterious Malcolm Slaight (Simon Baker), about whom Ellen develops immediate suspicions?
The fact that Joe is constantly berating Ellen to take her medication casts some serious doubt on Ellen’s connection with reality, but then, “The Lodger” has similar problems. Can a movie take medication?
Ondaatje, to be kind, has no idea how to create suspense — going for pure camp might have been a wise choice, given that Baker and Davis seem to have beaten him there, anyway. While the film has a lot of atmosphere, much of it — like that imported London rain — is artificially enhanced. Ondaatje’s visual digressions, injections of high style into a fairly static L.A., are interesting but utterly incongruous. Almost throughout, he strives to show too much, rather than less — although, generally speaking, less would have enhanced the terror quotient of the story.
Like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 film of the same name (subtitled “A Story of the London Fog”), “The Lodger” is based on the 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which Ondaatje ill-advisedly strives to expand: Pic gives the viewer multiple options and red herrings regarding who’s who and who’s doing what, then goes off in directions that defy its own story points. It’s simply not cricket to wrap things up, however messily, and then spring more surprises on the audience that have no basis in plot.
The most curious thing about the film is how so many talented actors — Davis, specifically — wound up in it. But like Jack the Ripper himself, the genesis of “The Lodger” may remain one of those never-to-be-solved mysteries.
Production values are merely adequate, although David A. Armstrong’s cinematography is creative and, at times, thrilling.