Anyone can make something of a good idea; taking a bad idea and running with it is what makes Paul Haggis’ “The Next Three Days.”
With Russell Crowe doing yeoman duty as the lead, this jailbreak movie finds a few new steps along a well-traveled trail.
One of the subplots in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire “The Player” involves two independent small-timers with a script for a heartbreaking exposé of a death penalty case. As time passes and they move up in the movie world, their plot gets steadily more preposterous, until it involves Bruce Willis shooting his way in at the last moment to rescue Julia Roberts.
That’s pretty much the story Haggis presents here.
Fortunately, it has already gone through one permutation, as Fred Cavayé’s “Pour Elle.” Although getting an English gloss from Haggis, the story is still: young wife abruptly arrested and sent to prison protesting her innocence, husband willing to do anything to rescue her, and we mean anything.
The set-up is ripe for satire, or for a breezy caper flick. But “The Next Three Days” presents this situation very, very seriously. Warning: as a date movie, that sets a pretty high standard for the rest of a relationship.
Otherwise, though, Haggis’ devotion to playing it straight is not an entirely a bad thing. Crowe is not the first actor who pops to mind as a low-key English professor at a Pittsburgh community college, but he smoothly slides into the skin of his everyman character.
Crowe makes us feel John Brennan’s bewilderment and frustration with the legal system. That’s not to mention his concern for his young son, Luke (Tyler Simpkins), taunted in school about his high-profile convict mother. We easily understand why Brennan would fantasize about breaking out his wife, Lara, played by Elizabeth Banks.
It still doesn’t seem like a good idea when Brennan, a naïf to the city’s seamier precincts, sets out to turn his daydreams into action. After a bit of on-line research, the Prof travels to New York to interview a real-life jailbreak artist, played by Liam Neeson in a brief but memorable turn. He’s helpful, but that’s not true of everyone Brennan meets, and the movie finds its surest footing in his misadventures.
While brevity can be a virtue, “The Next Three Days” moves almost too efficiently. “The Next Three Days” doesn’t waste a moment, but has little time for anything that doesn’t revolve around Russell Crowe. From a suspense standpoint, it is useful to gloss over the question of Lara Brennan’s actual guilt or innocence until the end. But after foreshortening that set-up, the movie does not compensate by giving Banks much to do, or her character much nuance. When she does or says something, the movie’s main interest is the effect on her husband.
That goes double for the other secondary characters. The always watchable Lennie James (“The Walking Dead”) plays a police lieutenant who gets some screen time, but again is left wondering just how much better than other actors he has to be before getting cast as the lead.
This may the easiest job Brian Dennehy has ever had. In his several scenes, he’s not called on to be much more than exchange meaningful glances with Crowe.
Haggis cast his pal Olivia Wilde in the role of mom in park. Yes, Wilde can’t do much about her implausibly beautiful face, but if Blake Lively can go down-market in “The Town,” there’s no reason why Wilde needs to be Hollywood mom in park. A rough edge or two would work wonders, especially if she were given a character to play.
Haggis and Wilde are principals in the charity Artists for Peace and Justice, which supported schools and clinics in Haiti even before the earthquake. Haiti, media people are saying to themselves, didn’t I hear something about that way back before Bristol Palin was voted into the final of “Dancing with the Stars?”
Artists for Peace and Justice is still on the ground in that devastated land, working in the face of the cholera outbreak. If you have $8 or $10 or $12 to spare, you might buy a ticket to this competent jailbreak movie. Or you might go on-line and donate it to Haitian relief. Haggis and Wilde probably hope you do both, but it’s your call.