What were once called voyeurs, with links to aberrant behavior and psychiatric studies, are now just… Us. Since the visual media explosion that began halfway through the last century, we have become a nation, even a world, of voyeurs.
We watch movies, live sporting events, TV, and in particular, Reality TV, and get off on it. This phenomenon of vicarious interest was first explored in the movies in 1954 (back when we still had lives of our own) in Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary “Rear Window,” a warped character-study wrapped in a murder mystery. Now Dreamworks, in the person of director D.J. Caruso (“Taking Lives,” “Two For the Money”), has re-made the Master’s classic as “Disturbia,” employing teens, or at least twenty-somethings playing teens, in place of the “Rear Window” cast of veteran adult stars.
“Disturbia” (teen angst for Suburbia) stars Shia Leboeuf as a teen who has gotten into serious trouble following the death of his father. Confined to his house by court order, enforced by an ankle bracelet (a new 21st century twist), he longs for freedom and begins to watch the lives of those who are free around him, his neighbors. In between spying on the nubile new-girl-next-door, dealing with his ‘dude’ best friend, and going to war with the trio of brats who occupy the house on the other side of his, he notices strange goings-on at the neighbors across the street. Is the lone, hulking owner (David Morse), a compulsive gardener, a serial killer, or is our hero just bored and paranoid? Soon, the confined teen has both the new girl and his buddy assisting him as legs and eyes in a potentially mortal investigation.
As a modern Dad ‘concerned with what his children watch on TV,’ I first saw Shia Lebouef on Disney Channels’ “Even Stevens,” and became hooked on his post-Beaver family and their consistently funny scripts. I was glad to see him make the usually impossible jump to major films in “Holes,” and wondered if he could sustain interest as he aged past the adolescent years. Thus, I was glad to see him in a Dreamworks production that wasn’t based on a kids’ book, and can report that he continues to mature in his craft, and remains a viable onscreen presence.
In “Disturbia,” he is offered a part tailor-made to his particular brand of humor, a character that is a logical progression of the kids he portrayed in “Stevens” and “Holes.” Lebouef is rebellious enough for the target audience to identify with, but not dark enough to rate a thumbs-down from the grownup viewers.
Essentially, he’s a nice, likeable young man. He and his costars do a credible job of mixing humor with suspense, but it is the director who lets them down. Caruso stretches the boundaries way past credibility in several crucial scenes, for the sake of heightening tension and pleasing the audience, but does so at the expense of overall suspension of disbelief. Caruso is very good at using the modern technology of cellphones, I-Pods and computers to both aid and frustrate the efforts of his would-be sleuths. Apple, in particular, must have paid a bundle for all the product-on-screen advertising.
And, even for those who have seen this kind of plot many times before, there are genuinely scary moments, mainly owing to how much you’ve come to care about the trio in a short time. Leboeuf’s main weapon is his pair of binoculars, and although they are used to good effect by the photographer on the big screen, I’m not sure how well the many shots we see through them will translate to a smaller home screen. And that would be a shame, as this is not what you would refer to as a “Big Screen” movie, one that begs you to leave your comfortable home for the theater experience. You could easily wait to see it on DVD.
“Rear Window” remains one of the finest suspense films ever made, from a filmmaker at the height of his creative powers. Hitchcock’s unique blend of witty script, liberally dosed with black humor, and stylish, innovative photography, accompanied by a beautiful, hypnotic and haunting score, has for over 60 years been the pinnacle to which directors aspire. Add to that a first-rate cast including icons Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, professional scene-stealer Thelma Ritter, and the formidable talents of Raymond Burr and Wendell Corey, and you have all the ingredients for a movie that is not only technically impressive, but a perennial audience delight.
Stewart has been moved from bed to wheelchair following an accident in his job as professional photographer, and is able only to roll around the small apartment in which he lives. It was part of the director’s genius to give us troubled, flawed heroes in an era where protagonists were hopelessly stalwart, and Stewart’s bent, acquired from his job, no doubt, is that he is a closet voyeur. Using old-fashioned binoculars at first, and then the high-powered lenses of his camera equipment, he begins, out of boredom, spying on his neighbors through the title port. Ashamed for a very short period, he quickly plunges into full-fledged voyeurism, and what started as a timekiller becomes an obsession.
His only breaks from the monotony of watching other people’s lives through a glass are the daily visits from his insurance nurse, Thelma Ritter, who provides most of the film’s humor through her acidic observations, and his wannabe girlfriend, the breathtaking Grace Kelly.
Today’s movies try to ‘frump up’ the likes of Bullock, Pfeiffer and Jolie to make them appear like us ‘normals.’ Luckily for us, Hitchcock didn’t believe in that twaddle, and he shows us Kelly’s full beauty, letting his camera linger long and lovingly on her, gently reminding us that we are vouyeurs, also. She is not only a goddess for Stewart, but nurse of his psyche, as she gives him ample reason to turn from his growing obsession towards her. And she would have done it neatly if he hadn’t happened on that pesky murder, the price he pays for meddling in his neighbors’ lives, even from a distance. Hitchcock not only entertains and titillates us, he offers a cautionary tale of the dangers of peeking at matters that were meant to remain private.
I learned a long time ago that movies where children were mixed up in the dangerous world of adults were more interesting than grownups ensnared in the same situations. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “See How They Run,” and “The Horse Without A Head” are just a few movies that I saw as youngster that put innocent young people at risk, and still enthrall me today. I guess it’s because we figure that big people should be able to take care of their own problems, and in many ways, are personally responsible for their own bad luck when those ills befall them.
Children, on the other hand, are set upon by the world we misguided adults have bequeathed them, and are also physically not up to the tasks that face them. I’m always surprised that Hollywood so often ignores this phenomena.
Make Meg Ryan a drunk who messes up her family and nobody cares. And, looking at the take, nobody did. But, if they’d made Haley Joel Osment a dipsomaniac, it would have been pure boxoffice. Not only does it make the ensuing events more suspenseful and harrowing when young people are put in danger, it makes more money sense, as the film is aimed directly at the target audience of today’s movies, the teens who frequent the cinema more often with their well-documented disposable income. If you are a teen OR adult who has never seen the genius of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” “Disturbia” offers plenty of tension, and genuinely scary scenes for your enjoyment.
If you are a veteran “Rear Window” fan, with your Beta upgraded first to VHS, then DVD, it is just fun watching Caruso pay tribute to the Master without too badly offending his sensibilities. You know what’s coming at every turn, but you don’t mind because the young people involved are earnest and very watchable from beginning to end. You will forgive the director his sin of not being born fat, bald, British, and brilliant, and you will get a kick out of sensing in advance the next move he makes that ties this film to the original.
Then there is the PG-13 factor. With the dearth of family movies, it is increasingly more difficult to find cinema entertainment that can be shared with our pre-18 offspring. This is a film that you can take the family to, as long as there are no very young children to be scared by some brief graphic shots of decomposition. There is no sex, and little bad language to offend, and the violence, as in the original, resides mainly in your own imagination. Until the end…
Against all that, you have a film that college professors teaching the elements of the cinematic art still go over with their classes, shot by amazing shot. There is a reason film buffs perennially list “Rear Window” in their self-satisfying lists of their 100 favorite films, and I also am guilty as charged. Every element of the movie draws you in, personally involves you, then leaves you exiting Hitchcock’s World with the regret that it is not your own.
This is a no-brainer with a proviso. Of course, “Rear Window” is the superior film in almost every way. Not only can’t “Disturbia” compete with it, neither can 99% of the rest of the movies made by
Hollywood since its 1954 release. If you haven’t experienced “Rear Window,” find it. Buy it. Enjoy it, again and again. But also, do not ignore it’s stepchild, “Disturbia”. A cast of very appealing, talented young people led by Shia Leboeuf make sure that it’s not a waste of your time.