The first act of “Separation” plays out as a relatively straightforward domestic drama in which Maggie Vahn (Mamie Gummer) decides she’s had enough of her lazy artist husband Jeff (Rupert Friend). In a series of scenes that make it clear that at least one person involved in the production of this film has had a horrific divorce, Maggie becomes an evil caricature, yelling at her wide-eyed husband, a guy who may have had a little too much time to take care of an artistic dream that does not feed the family but that we are clearly meant to love. And, of course, Maggie isn’t just asking for a divorce, she’s asking for full custody of their daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw) mainly because she’s cruel, and she gets the support of her wealthy father Paul (Brian Cox, who looks like almost to he knows that he is on top of all this business). As Maggie rips Jeff up on the phone again, she walks into an intersection and gets wrecked by a speeding car. The last words of this vicious woman are: “Because she is mine. ”
Almost immediately, strange things start to happen around Jeff and Jenny, making it clear that Maggie’s last words extend into the afterlife. Again, the starting point for this film is, “What if my ex-wife tries to ruin my life after she dies?” Jenny and Jeff start to see puppet-like creatures inspired by Jeff’s art for something called Grizzly Kin (think Tim Burton’s early designs). Bell can’t help but cheap horror stuff like fear jumps and even a real double dream streak, which I’m sure was banned in 2003. Worst of all, the scares of “Separation”, with the possible exception of The First Time Jeff sees a puppeteer walking on the crab (although he barely responds), it’s not scary. It doesn’t even have the surreal funhouse aesthetic that this project needed from the start.
Partly, it’s because he’s barely trying. At 50 minutes, there was basically a scare scene and a ton of lackluster domestic drama. I almost started to yearn for the craziness of “The Boy” movies just to break the boredom. And then there’s a panic attack sequence at a puppet show in a park that’s also the incredibly incompetent centerpiece of the whole movie. A red palette washes the screen as a bubble pops up in slow motion and it’s like a parody of a bad horror movie. If the word “PUPPETS!” was flashing on the screen, that wouldn’t be out of place. Although I’m afraid to make it all more fun than it actually is. It really is not. It’s amazing in its dullness.
Solid actors on “Homeland” and “Succession,” respectively, Friend and Cox get lost in bad writing and filmmaking here. The latter is a simple conspiracy and sticks around just to be part of the stupidity of the final act. The first was so under-directed that even he sometimes seemed bored. There are no believable characters, no growing tension and no fear in this “Insidious” “Kramer vs. Kramer” encounter. Just so many questions about how it happened.
In theaters today.