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'The 9th Life of Louis Drax' doesn't survive the free-fall of obviousness

'The 9th Life of Louis Drax' doesn't survive the free-fall of obviousness
Aaron Paul, left, and Aiden Longworth in the movie "The 9th Life of Louis Drax." (Summit Premiere)

Nine-year-old Louis Drax's (Aiden Longworth) brief existence so far has been marked by near-death mishaps — from salmonella and botulism to electrocution and broken bones — yet he cheerfully calls himself "accident-prone." He narrates an introduction as we see him plummeting from a seaside cliff in the jarring opening moments of "The 9th Life of Louis Drax." As for this clumsy movie's own missteps, one of them is a free-fall of knowing exactly where its ham-fisted, head-scratching mix of fantasy, potboiler and family drama is headed.

All those elements may have combined to fine literary effect in Liz Jensen's 2004 novel, which takes readers inside poor Louis' head as he lay in a coma, while on the outside the mystery behind his fall is investigated. But in the hands of director Alexandre Aja — known primarily as a splatter-loving horror-meister ("The Hills Have Eyes" remake) — it's an off-putting mix of matters whimsical and disturbing, more obvious and ludicrous than chilling.

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When this kind of child-in-peril narrative works, you get the strange richness of a "Pan's Labyrinth." When it doesn't, you get Peter Jackson proving how unfilmable "The Lovely Bones" was. And now there's this unfortunate adaptation by actor-turned-screenwriter Max Minghella. (His late father, Oscar-winning Anthony Minghella, had initially hoped to direct it over a decade ago.)

The strain shows early as the movie awkwardly toggles between flashbacks to Louis' life before this latest catastrophe — a childhood of bizarre behavior and appointments with an understanding psychiatrist (Oliver Platt) — and afterward, when he's in a hospital bed sporting a comb-over of sensors as part of an effort by a pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Pascal (Jamie Dornan), to test out his theory that the unconscious can still communicate.

The married doctor is easily sidetracked, however, by the allure of his patient's beautiful, anguished mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon), who believes in a psychic connection with her unlucky, eccentric son, and appears ripe for romantic healing since Peter (Aaron Paul), the husband she frequently fought with, has gone missing since the latest incident. If that's not enough to chew on, there's also the growly voiced, seaweed-and-bug-covered creature Louis converses with in his comatose state and who might be in Dr. Pascal's head, as well.

The trailer for "The 9th Life of Louis Drax." (Summit Premiere)

Needless to say, tone and disbelief suspension are issues, especially because Aja can't decide if he's making a phantasmagoric fairy tale or a noirish, faux-Hitchcockian procedural. The movie's shift in perspectives — Louis' narration disappears for long stretches — is more lumbering than fluid, and the hodgepodge of performances doesn't help, either. Early on, when Louis' "weird kid" personality dominates, Longworth's mix of beatific innocence and cynical precociousness grates rather than charms or saddens. Dornan, meanwhile, sticks to a blank expression of placid earnestness that makes him more a sap to roll one's eyes at rather than an audience surrogate.

Because Aja is a director whose fright film M.O. is to not just kill but overkill, he telegraphs the movie's deep, dark secrets surprisingly early in how he directs Gadot and Paul as the clashing but doting parents. At the heart of this contorted piece is a painfully solvable mystery about seemingly unsolvable emotions, but because it's treated like a shell game intended to shock us instead of a directly engaged, nuanced psychodrama, its revelatory power is lost. One is left laughing about situational absurdities — the insanity behind a family outing mere feet from a dangerous precipice, or the ethics-challenged idiocies of a clueless doctor — than worrying about whether a boy is going to survive. That regrettable disconnect is eerier than anything meant to unnerve in "The 9th Life of Louis Drax."

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'The 9th Life of Louis Drax'

MPAA rating: R for some disturbing images and brief strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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