The possibility of changing the past and, with it, your own life lies at the heart of “Frequency,” an oddly schizophrenic fantasy thriller that ultimately succumbs to a fatal case of sentimentality. Gregory Hoblit’s third feature, after “Primal Fear” and “Fallen,” exerts an undeniable pull for quite a while due to its unusual, and unusually emotional, approach to time travel set in a credible working-class milieu, but falters when it resorts to more conventional serial killing and tear-jerking. It will be difficult to devise a campaign that effectively conveys what the film is like or about, but New Line’s best bet is to try to connect with “The Sixth Sense” fans by suggesting that there is something a bit eerie and different here that they might appreciate. Pic is a commercial underdog with long-shot sleeper potential.
Screenplay by Toby Emmerich, longtime music exec at Atlantic Records and then New Line before taking up the pen, swings on the nagging “what if” proposition of altering one’s lot in life by going back to interfere with events that took place years before. At hand is the case of John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel), a New York cop who’s never really gotten over the death on the job of his heroic fireman father, Frank (Dennis Quaid), when John was only 6. Transporting the tale from the mundane to the fantastic is the appearance of Frank’s old ham radio, miraculously still working after all these years; when John tunes in, he picks up a voice that it doesn’t take long to determine is that of his dad, transmitting from Queens, N.Y., where he himself still lives, only in 1969, not 1999.
With weird aurora borealis light storms dominating the heavens, early going establishes the alternation between the two time frames that persists throughout the picture. Late-’60s footage reveals Frank as a confident, happy “big kid” with a loving wife, Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell), who’s a nurse, and a son he loves even while wishing he were more of a jock. All the same, both of them are huge Mets fans riveted to the ’69 World Series, which plays out in the course of the action.
The extraordinary connection with his father over the airwaves gives John the miraculous chance of a lifetime to warn his father about his impending death and thus prevent it. “If you’d just gone the other way, you would have made it,” the son tells his dad about the headline-producing Bruxton fire that took the latter’s life exactly 30 years before. In the big enactment of that event, Frank does indeed go “the other way” and survives, thus sparing a little boy the tragedy of his father’s early death, but thereby setting off a whole different chain of fateful events that John, in the present, somehow has to figure out and deal with.
Emmerich’s bold leap into reconfiguring the past produces some agreeable surprises and presents an infinite number of possibilities as to where the rest of the story might be headed. Unfortunately, of all the roads he could have taken, he chose a desperately familiar one — that of a serial killer on the loose in New York, one of whose victims turned out to be John’s mother. With everything, from newspaper clippings to John’s family memories, turned inside out, the cop’s life becomes very confusing; now, after having snatched his father from the jaws of death, he’s got to save the life of his mother.
Notified by John over their time-impervious “frequency,” Frank busies himself trying to prevent all the murders, a noble cause that nonetheless places him at the crime scenes and imperils him in an altogether unintended manner. Emmerich keeps jumping hoops of implausibility and disbelief practically to the last minute, but finally writes himself into a corner that can be escaped only by a grand leap, one that lands him, and the picture, in a puddle of sloppy goop that even happy-ever-after seekers may find a bit much.
The resolution, and much that leads up to it, is certainly disappointing, but there is enough that’s off-center and just downright different in the film to keep one’s antenna alert. Baseball fans will delight in how specific knowledge of the legendary Mets-Orioles World Series is crucially tied into the plot, and period details, including everything from technological changes to personal styles, are appealingly underplayed.
Despite their physical separation, Quaid and Caviezel establish a palpable bond that gives the picture its tensile strength. Creating a portrait of a dad any kid would love to have, Quaid registers strongly as a responsible man who hasn’t lost his gift for fun. The anxiety and desperation Caviezel is called upon to portray is somewhat less interesting to watch, but he still impresses in an unpredictable and resourceful turn. Shawn Doyle is creepy as a determined killer, while Andre Braugher and Noah Emmerich are solid in unremarkable roles as longtime friends of the family. Femme parts are sadly one-dimensional.
Shot in Toronto with some Gotham locations, pic effectively evokes its times and places as it sets ambitious goals before taking the easy way out. Tech aspects are solid.