Though her features are big and open and expressive, there's always been something mysterious or withholding about Julia Roberts. At her best, she's a cheery cipher, aloof in the friendliest way possible. And she's gotten chillier as her career has worn on. What was warm and alluring in Pretty Woman and Sleeping With the Enemy (her one great dramatic performance) became almost kind of mean by the time we got to Notting Hill. Her prickly personality in various interviews and public appearances, plus a general dearth of good roles since Erin Brockovich (Duplicity is the only one I can think of) has not helped change her temperature any, and so now, here in 2012, she seems almost completely gone. She's distant and remote and almost ghostly. So it's strange and jarring, then, to see her going for broad, imperious comedy in the vein of Dame Streep in the new Snow White picture Mirror Mirror. Just what is she doing in this movie?

Actually, that question could be asked of pretty much everyone and everything in this bizarre jumble of tone and style. The film is directed by Tarsem Singh, the opulent visualist behind many commercials and three previous feature films. Mirror Mirror marks his first family film, and I'm not sure he's a right fit for the form. Or he's just not the right fit for this particular script, written by relative newcomers Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller, which presents the familiar tale as arch comedy, with witty little rejoinders and modern phrases peppering the traditional storybook stuff. The script, at times, has a bouncy, pleasant energy to it — sometimes it's too clever by half, and it doesn't seem to have any idea where it's going, but it's still fun in places — but Tarsem doesn't do bouncy, or pleasant. His images tend toward the sleek and stark, they're slo-mo acid trips at a Danish furniture store. And so in Mirror Mirror, amid all the silliness, we get Roberts, as the Evil Queen, walking through her magic mirror and rising up out of the water in some sort of alternate world that looks like one of the levels from Myst. There's that and Nathan Lane turning into a cockroach in the same movie? It's all very discordant.

But back to Ms. Roberts, who, as evidenced in the preview, tries out about sixteen different accents in the film before mostly giving up entirely by picture's end. She's going for the kind of pinched regalness that she's presumably seen other, more capable actresses do, and in the attempt comes across very much like the best actress in a college play. She has her moments and clearly has an idea of what timing is, but the performance is ultimately rather flat and unthoughtful. You've heard one sing-song barb, you've heard 'em all. And yet they keep coming. One almost starts to feel bad for Roberts as she flounders around trying to find her groove, but then she seems so haughtily convinced that she's doing an ace job that pity immediately evaporates. It's hard to take your eyes off the performance, but it's by no means a good one. The amateurishness of it is maybe the draw. She's so garishly miscast that her vain efforts to fill the role seem almost juvenile. It's interesting to watch Julia Roberts struggle, and fail, I guess.

The rest of the film isn't much better. Yes there are dwarfs, and of course they are goofy wisecrackers each with a particular personality trait. Among the seven are a hotshot tough guy, a fussy hairdresser (yes), and, rather unsettlingly, a lovelorn fellow, played by a 40-year-old actor, who has a crush on the just-turned-18 Snow White. Aside from that kinda creepy subplot, the comedy business with the dwarfs is harmless and even charming for a short while, but quickly devolves into a profusion of lame jokes that aren't even funny for being lame. The movie treads the line of mocking little people for being little people, though it never quite goes over the edge. As Snow White, the up-and-coming actress Lily Collins is exactly as aggravating as her stepmother keeps saying she is, all dewy looks and stammering. There's a vague chord of girl power clunkily stuffed in toward the end of the film, but Collins can't even rise to that mild challenge. She's a breathy, blushing nonentity, and while I suppose it's not exactly her fault that Snow White isn't a terribly dynamic, complex character to begin with, for a movie that's bubbling over with dopey jokes, she can't even land one of those right. She's the perfect look for the film (though, girl, get that hairdresser dwarf to do something about those eyebrows, damn), but someone with a little more edge could have better handled all the comedy.

Snow White's soupy innocence is contrasted oddly by a few strikingly off-color jokes that land with loud clangs at various points throughout the film. In one scene, Roberts' character has her face smeared with runny, brown bird poop. MmHm. In another, Nathan Lane, back in human form after being turned into a cockroach for a spell (by a spell), alludes to the fact that he was essentially raped by a grasshopper. A walrus head costume (there's a costume ball) seems to deliberately look like two testicles with tusks, and Armie Hammer, as a bewitched Prince Charming (or whatever his name is), keeps licking people. I get the whole Shrek-style "let's make the grownups laugh too" tactic, but the "adult" humor in this film is so strange, so out of left field, that it feels almost, dare I say, European. There's something very peculiar and foreign about it, and it lends the movie — which, despite Tarsem's occasional flair, is mostly pretty dull and cheap-looking — an uncomfortable feeling.

If this was Roberts wanting to have a grand lark and show us that she can trill and flurry with the best of the actresses of a certain age, she could certainly have chosen a better project. There are a few genuinely funny moments in Mirror Mirror and some lovely costume work (particularly at that costume ball), but it's not funny enough to be a real comedy, not magical enough to be a real fairy tale, and not smart enough to be subversive. Here's hoping that Snow White and the Huntsman gets as many things right as this film gets wrong.

 

*****

 

Oof, speaking of wrong, Wrath of the Titans. In one sequence of this film, a sequel to 2010's brashly incoherent Clash of the Titans, our hero Perseus (a bored-looking Sam Worthington) is caught in an old, elaborate labyrinth. There's actually a palpable sense of dread and unease at work in the scene — it's claustrophobic and scary and atmospheric — but then a lurching, huffing, and completely unexplained minotaur appears, there's a brief skirmish, and the beast is unceremoniously killed and never spoken of again. The way this film throws the minotaur legend, an entire engaging story unto itself, into the mix and just grinds it up with the rest of the chuck is pretty emblematic of the way the entire film works. They just, y'know, got some old Greek stuff and slapped it together and that's that. Here are your 3D glasses, that'll be sixteen dollars please.

The film is dismayingly lazy. This could be such a cool movie! Minotaurs and cyclopses and titans and chimeras and volcanoes and everything else oh my! But instead it's big and noisy and cluttered, and yet weightless despite all that. Nothing is given more than a second's consideration; the film throws us into its idea of a plot almost immediately, because who cares about pacing, all we're really here for is nonsensical fight scene after nonsensical fight scene, right? Titans has a pretty dim view of its audience, though as evidenced by the fact that the first film earned enough to merit a sequel, maybe they aren't actually underestimating anyone.

Joining Perseus on his quest — his dad, Zeus, has been kidnapped by his son Ares and his brother Hades, who want to release the kraken Zeus's bad dad Cronus to bring about the apocalypse, so Percy's gotta go get him — is another demigod named Agenor (Toby Kebbell), a son of Poseidon who's a lout and a layabout when we first meet him but then, by the end of the film, has magically transformed into a guy capable of leading a bunch of men into battle (this is over the course of, from what I could tell, about a day or two). There's also the beautiful Queen Andromeda, played by the so much better than this it's sad Rosamund Pike (someone please give her some good material), who is initially presented as a warrior queen, but later proves completely useless in battle. (She raises her sword, runs, gets knocked down, the end.) Along the way Perseus spends some time with his uncle Hephaestus, who's gone dotty in his old age and is played, with admirable scenery-chewing verve, by the wonderful Bill Nighy. That's a ray of light in this otherwise murky film, but it's alas short lived. Meanwhile, of course, Liam Neeson does his patented soulful growl as Zeus, Ralph Fiennes turns down the Voldemort sniveling but maintains the elegant villainy as Hades, and a big monster made out of rocks and lava turns in a beautiful performance as Cronus, who, as it turns out, is basically a big monster made out of rocks and lava. It's an impressive film debut, though, again, is sadly brief.

What else is there to really say about this squalid missed opportunity? It's just a very bad movie. What little story there is feels entirely inconsequential, the 3D is not used in any remarkable or even mildly interesting way, and a bunch of great actors look either pained or bored the entire time. It's a depressing affair all around. But, on the upside, at least I get the title now. If I were a titan, I'd be angry too.