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Go-nowhere Noir

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The Black Dahlia, if you haven’t heard of it yet, is one of those film-noir murder mysteries that asks you to figure out just who the hell killed the broad. What you should be asking yourself is: How the hell does Josh Hartnett keep getting work? If that mystery isn’t enough to make your brain melt into gelatinous ooze, here’s another one: How many bad films is Brian De Palma going to make before someone puts him out of his misery? Wait, wait, wait, here’s one more: Why does it seem that, for every good performance Scarlett Johansson gives, we get three bad ones?

An adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel of the same name, Dahlia follows hot on the heels of Hollywoodland, another stab at film noir. But, even though Hollywoodland is pretty much a loss from start to finish, it looks like maybe the best film of its kind since Chinatown when compared to Dahlia. De Palma’s hackneyed attempt to imagine how Hitchcock would have handled the genre suffers not only from bad narration — delivered by Hartnett’s detective Bucky (yes, Bucky) with the same sort of forced, talking-through-my-grinding-teeth technique that has made Keanu Reeves one of our most respected thespians — but it also has enough plot threads to weave together three more bad movies.

Mostly, it seems to be about a dead, down-on-her-luck, Hollywood-dreamer type who is found neatly cut in two, with a Joker-like face carved into her own. But there’s also an invalid father packed in there, an abusive pimp who’s getting out of jail and may or may not want vengeance on Bucky’s partner Leland Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), Blanchard’s ex-hooker girlfriend Kay Lake (Johansson) who may or may not want to trade her man for Bucky, a construction tycoon’s slutty daughter (Hilary Swank) who looks a lot like the dead chick, a kiddie-raper, a mobster with a big heart, and, if all this wasn’t enough, some shit about boxing.

Of course, all these stories tie together by the end. (Well, sort of.) (OK, most of them do.) (OK, some of them do.) (Maybe it makes sense if you read the book.) But know this: If you stick out the two-or-so hours here, all you’ll discover is that you have to be expressly told who the killer is, since even Bucky’s preposterously lucky policework couldn’t have figured it out. You’ll also see Hartnett do what he does best: Make other actors look better. Hell, Johansson is only semi-convincing as a talking mannequin here because, by comparison with Hartnett’s performance, she’s Meryl Fucking Streep. And Swank? Jeez, if you thought she was brilliant in her earlier work, watching her next to Hartnett is like putting the chick who played Blossom in the same room as Camryn Manheim: Of course Blossom is going to look hot. But that doesn’t mean she really is.

The Black Dahlia, when you think about it then, really just does what Josh Hartnett does: make others — in this case, films — look better by comparison.

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