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.