by James Hansen
Befuddlingly bland, The Roommate has a stock set up with plenty of room for crazy, but can’t even match the bizarre terror unleashed via the naming privileges of director Christian Christiansen’s parents. Perhaps trapped by its PG-13 rating (although it is consistently so cobbled together that placing blame is quite difficult), The Roommate never feels like horror movie, at least certainly not a scary one, and its attempts at psychological terror are equally ill-conceived and ineffective. The jumbled direction and screenwriting, punctuated by a distressing causal justification, leaves it terribly confused. Uniquely inept, The Roommate plays out as a completely different movie than the one pieced together before the viewer’s eyes.
Sara (Minka Kelly) is a college freshman moves onto campus at the University of Los Angeles without her boyfriend, Jason, who snubbed their deal to go to school together for a last minute spot at Brown. Eventually, she meets her roommate, Rebecca (Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester), who comes off as a bit strange – a trip to see Richard Prince’s Nurse Paintings doesn’t help – but mostly stays in her room and appears to be relatively kind. Rebecca starts cracking when Sara’s attention turns elsewhere: the friend down the hall, the suave fashion professor (Billy Zane!), the sexy boyfriend (Cam Gigandet aka that dude from The OC and Burlesque!). Rebecca can’t handle anyone getting between her and her obsession.
Sadly, The Roommate is miscast, poorly written, edited, and directed, or all of the above. Meester, as Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl, has proven she can play a complex queen and evil bitch quite effectively, swinging from the world of backstabbing, artificial validation (and great clothes) to the world of a deeply effected, vulnerable, privileged teenager trying to figure out the world around her (while still wearing great clothes). Here, Meester’s nonchalant charisma and charm turn Rebecca into something more than the purely evil roommate. It is rather clear The Roommate wants nothing to do with these added dimensions, as Meester’s performance contradicts the dangerous tone proposed by many of the Christiansen’s horror-based directorial choices.
But what is calling for Rebecca’s straight up craziness? Christiansen’s direction pushes her in that way. The script, on the other hand, calls for Meester’s characterization through its building of a narrative beyond its standard set up. The contradiction, then, that we feel coming off the screen does not involve Meester, but rather the disconnect between the screenplay and its direction. Screenwriter Sonny Malhi provides us with a strange amount of exposition about Rebecca, complete with a Thanksgiving trip home to her supportive, concerned, upper class parents. Christiansen and Malhi construct this scene merely as a way to reveal a downplayed, explanatory plot point, yet it shows not only that Rebecca has two sides, but also poses a much larger problem.
The parent’s revelation pinpoints a fundamental shift in The Roommate’s schema, which goes unrecognized by Christiansen or Malhi. Malhi’s half-hearted, yet fully invested justification for the Rebecca’s unstable actions – she’s schizophrenic and/or bipolar and off her meds! – inadvertently turns this horror saga into a strangely sad one. [I would have included a major spoiler sign if it seemed like The Roommate actually cared about said “spoiler.”] Rebecca isn’t some crazed slasher, terrorizing the friends of her roommate out of sheer delight. (Truthfully, that would make for a better horror movie and seems to be the movie Christiansen & Malhi think they are making). Instead, she’s a mentally unstable girl with no friends whose problems potentially could have been offset by a helping hand and a trip to the guidance counselor. At least when Buffy wanted to kill her college roommate, she made sure it was a conspiratorial, soul-sucking demon first.