Director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro veers out of his customary lane in “Nightmare Alley,” a gorgeous-looking but narratively flawed movie that at its best evokes the lurid thrillers of the 1940s while meandering too much in between. Bradley Cooper fills the central role, but Cate Blanchett steals the show as a Barbara Stanwyck-style femme fatale.
Adapted from a 75-year-old novel (previously turned into a movie with Tyrone Power), the film focuses on a young stranger who leaves behind a scarred past and stumbles into the company of a traveling carnival in the 1930s (the vibe of the HBO series “Carnivale” is strong), eventually graduating from lifting and hoisting to mastering the mentalist act.
Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle should seemingly be younger, a bit of casting that requires a certain suspension of disbelief at first. Putting that aside, the movie doesn’t fully kick into gear until about halfway through its 2 ½-hour running time, as Stanton decides to leave and cash in with his psychic routine in the big city, running off with the wide-eyed Molly (Rooney Mara).
It’s in that setting where Stanton encounters Lilith Ritter (Blanchett), a cool and alluring psychologist who has the potential to open doors among the rich and powerful. He also ignores the warnings from his carny bosses to avoid doing a “spook show” by pretending to speak to the dead, using his reading skills to soothe the emotionally wounded elite to which she introduces him by saying what they want to hear about departed loved ones, an increasingly perilous grifting act.
Del Toro is renowned for his visual style dating back to movies like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and more recently the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water,” and he turns that loose both on the carnival and Stanton’s posh surroundings, with the former bringing to mind Tim Burton’s flair for garish imagery.
Still, “Nightmare Alley” spends too long spinning its wheels before getting to the more pertinent twists about the dangers of conning the wrong people, as well as the shadowy motivations of all concerned.
The movie thus proves most enjoyable for its sumptuous look and throwback atmosphere, with a loaded cast — including Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins and Ron Perlman — receiving a jolt of electricity whenever Blanchett’s on the screen. (It’s her second showy supporting performance of the month, along with the Netflix satire “Don’t Look Up.”)
The real challenge, ultimately, will be whether the abundant star power and celebrated director offers enough of an incentive for the rubes (in carny speak) to hand over their coins, especially for a movie that’s hard to describe and doesn’t really fall into the genres for which Del Toro is known. The prospect of serving as counter-programming to the new “Spider-Man” for a somewhat more adult crowd might be its best hope, and that seems as wispy as Stanton’s mustache.
Del Toro’s movies are inevitably lush, and the casting and atmosphere here provide a significant come-on to film noir aficionados, who will probably catch up with “Nightmare Alley” over time. As for the immediate challenge, that pitch might not be as effective in luring people into the theatrical tent.
“Nightmare Alley” premieres Dec. 17 in US theaters. It’s rated R.
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