Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds a job at a carnival working for Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). After meeting Zeena (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant, he learns that she and her husband Pete (David Strathairn) use Molly (Rooney Mara) to put on a con act to steal from others. He uses their scheme for his own benefit when he teams up with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist, to try to con a wealthy tycoon, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).
Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, the latest film version on Nightmare Alley takes its time to get to the meat of its story. The screenplay by writer/director Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan spends the first half hour or so with the lengthy first act that most of the characters except for Dr. Lililth Ritter and Eza Grindle who don't arrive until later. Thirty minutes is a long time to establish Stanton as a grifter who has no shame in associating with shady people, but Nightmare Alley seems content in repeating that fact over and over. It's not until he meets Dr. Lilith Ritter at a nightclub that Nightmare Alley begins to gather momentum and become at least moderately gripping. The main problem with the screenplay, though, probably comes from its source material: the audience doesn't have any characters on screen whom they can trust or remotely like. They're all unpleasant, toxic, selfish, sadistic and greedy which makes it hard to connect with any of them.
Moreover, here are too few scenes that allow the film to breathe to get to know the characters enough so that they become palpable human beings. Too many characters could work if the plot remains compelling like in Knives Out, but it isn't compelling enough. Even if you're unfamiliar with the novel or with the 1947 black-and-white version of Nightmare Alley, it's easy to figure out in which direction the plot will be headed toward and to predict whether or not everything will go smoothly for Stanton, Dr. Ritter and their con. It doesn't help that he's too trustworthy of her and not very bright. For instance, thinks that he can trust her to put his money in her office's hidden safe. Cue some double crosses, violence, sadism and more vile behavior from the unreliable characters, but not much intrigue or suspense. There's also a lack of comic relief, so it's a shame that Nightmare Alley takes itself too seriously and rarely feels fun, thrilling or exhilarating, especially during the overwrought third act.
The issue with the performances and pacing can be summed up with just one word: uneven. A slow-burn first act picks up a little speed before turning into a medium burn and then a faster burn. The filmmakers should be commended for trusting the audience's patience because patience can be rewarding. Unfortunately, that's not quite the case here because there's not much intrinsically rewarding by the time the end credits roll. What stands out the most are the exquisite production values which is precisely what you would expect in a period piece from Guillerm Del Toro. Everything from the lighting to the set design, costume design, the camerawork and the music score come together to make for a stylish experience on a superficial level. Sometimes style can be part of a film's substance, but that doesn't quite happen in Nightmare Alley. Bradley Cooper gives a dull performance that fails to breathe life into his role. The only memorable performance comes from Cate Blanchett who lights up the screen with her charisma. She's just as radiant as Kim Bassinger in L.A. Confidential. It's too bad that she's stuck in a film that's mediocre at best and that fails to pack an emotional wallop even though it tries--too hard, rather--to be emotionally resonating toward the end. At a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, Nightmare Alley is visually stylish, but often dull and overlong with uneven pacing and too many characters.
The Scary of Sixty-First
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has to deal with two major problems: his secret identity as Spider-Man goes public, and he's concurrently framed for murder. To solve his problems, he visits Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and hopes that his spell will make everyone forget that he's Spider-Man. The spell doesn't go as planned and unleashes Spider-Man's past villains from the Multiverse.
To reveal more about the plot of Spider-Man: No Way Home wouldn't be fair because discovering the surprises is a large part of what makes the film so exhilarating. Like some blockbusters this year, i.e. Eternals, there are some moments of poignancy which won't be spoiled here. The screenplay Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers isn't overloaded with exposition or intense action scenes, although there's a good amount of both of those necessary elements, but the film doesn't become exhausting nor dull. McKenna and Sommers don't forget that the heart of the story is the relationship between the human beings: Peter Parker and his friends, MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon), as well as between Peter and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). There are just enough interactions between them to ground the film in realism without boring the audience or veering toward cheesiness. Most impressive, though, is the dialogue that's witty, tongue-in-cheek and even genuinely funny at times. It helps to have watched the previous Spider-Man movies, but it's not a necessity in order to follow the plot which isn't too confusing. It does, admittedly, go bonkers at one point, although not nearly as bonkers as F9, The Suicide Squad Free Guy, and it's aware of its own outrageousness. In other words, Spider-Man: No Way Home knows when to take itself seriously and when not to. If you enjoyed Free Guy, chances are that you'll enjoy Spider-Man: No Way Home as well because it's just as wildly entertaining, delightful and exciting. It's similar to an invigorating, satisfying roller-coaster ride.
The entire cast seems to be having a lot of fun on-screen. Fortunately, that fun transfers to the audience. Everyone is well-cast, from the main actors to the supporting ones. Tom Holland exudes charisma and impresses even during the more dramatic scenes that require a wide range of emotions. He helps to make Peter Parker/Spider-Man worth rooting for from start to finish. Jacob Batalon provides some great comic relief and Zendaya proves herself to be a solid actress with some heartfelt moments. The action scenes are dazzling with great use of CGI that makes for a palpably thrilling experience which will be heightened even more on the big screen. While the film does have plenty of visual spectacle and pizzazz, it still has an engaging story and doesn't forget to allow the audience to care about its characters. There are even some understated moments with nuance that trusts the audience's imagination and emotions without hitting them over the head like too many blockbusters do.
So, Spider-Man: No Way Home finds just the right balance between Truth and Spectacle, and doesn't pander to the audience. To be fair, the editing does briefly feel choppy and distracting at the beginning with too many quick cuts from shot to shot like in a music video, but that doesn't take away from the film's narrative momentum and nor does it become a systemic problem. At a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes, which feels more like 90 minutes, Spider-Man: No Way Home is an exhilarating, delightful and crowd-pleasing spectacle with just the right balance of humor, heart and thrills. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for a mid-credits scene and a stinger.