‘Gone Girl’ good, but should have been better

Ann Hornaday (c) 2014, The Washington Post. The challenge for any director bringing Gillian Flynn’s addictive 2012 whodunit “Gone Girl” to the big screen, is to capture the propulsive, page-turning readability that made the book such a diabolically pleasurable airplane read. David Fincher has risen to the challenge by making a sober, handsomely realized airplane movie, which is not nearly the same thing.

At a tushie-numbing 2 1/2 hours, Fincher’s “Gone Girl” might provide some welcome diversion on a trip over the flyover country the book and movie subtly lampoon: The twisty plot, sophisticated production values and handful of standout performances will no doubt persuade rows of fidgety viewers that they’re watching something of intelligence, quality and impeccable literary provenance.

But it’s just that sense of seriousness that keeps “Gone Girl” from reaching its fullest potential. Unaccountably, Flynn — who adapted her own book for the screen — has left some of her tangiest provocations either entirely unplumbed or superficially pinged. “Gone Girl” is a “yes, but” movie: Yes, it’s well-made, but it stays maddeningly on its own polished surfaces. It’s smart, but not clever or probing or risky enough to be truly brilliant. It’s absorbing, but not terribly deep, memorable or, finally, all that much fun to watch.

These are just the kind of nagging, picayune nitpicks that can make someone sound suspiciously like Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), the impossibly demanding — and rich, and smart and gorgeous — enigma at the center of “Gone Girl,” which revolves around her disappearance in North Carthage, Missouri. That’s where Amy has moved with her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), who asked her to return with him to his hometown in order to attend to his dying mother and ride out a bumpy economy. As “Gone Girl” opens, Nick is coming to work at his new job: proprietor of a local tavern called the Bar, which he runs with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon).

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“I know the Bar!” exclaims Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), one of the detectives assigned to Nick and Amy’s case. “Great name — very meta.”

The same could be said for “Gone Girl,” in which Nick appears first as panicked husband and then as a suspect, partly due to his own tendency to smile and flirt at inappropriate moments — an ingratiating habit he’s developed to keep from appearing like an arrogant jerk (a character trait played out with more rich detail in the book).

Playing Nick with thick, bleary-eyed handsomeness, Affleck is quietly persuasive as a guy who in another era might have been a master of the universe, but is still reeling from having that perch snatched from under him. For her part, Amy, radiantly played by Pike in the kind of leading role she’s long deserved, emerges in flashbacks and reenacted diary entries first as a too-good-to-be-true Manhattan singleton, then as a young wife whose patience with her husband’s personal and professional setbacks may not be entirely long-suffering.

Both Affleck and Pike are convincing as the compulsively self-conscious, highly unreliable dual narrators of “Gone Girl.” The film also features some terrific supporting performances, most notably from Dickens, Coons and Tyler Perry as a celebrity criminal defense attorney who winds up being an alternately amused and exasperated Greek chorus observing the story’s most vertiginous zigs and zags.

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That those turns finally send “Gone Girl” into such outlandish territory is very much in keeping with the book’s florid third act, here featuring a wildly miscast Neil Patrick Harris in a pivotal role. But the story’s pulpy nuttiness isn’t particularly well served by Fincher’s careful, literal-minded restraint, in which what might have been a teasingly perverse romp on a par with “To Die For” becomes something more glum and fatally defanged.

On a meta level that Detective Boney would no doubt appreciate, “Gone Girl” contains within it a fascinating meditation on TV scandal culture, gender politics and the private and performative selves that comprise every marriage. But rather than reel in the audience by adopting the book’s own seductively confiding tone, Fincher keeps the material at arm’s length, depicting Nick and Amy’s courtship and marriage with the unlived-in emotional distance of their bland, Pottery Barn-perfect house. The result is a movie that’s nominally all about subverting expectations, but that never gives us convincing expectations to subvert.

Fincher’s somber, exacting tone leeches the diabolical humor that would have given “Gone Girl” much-needed satirical juice. With few exceptions (often by way of Coons’s tartly revelatory portrayal of the acid-tongued Margo), the film plays even the story’s most darkly funny passages tensely straight, ending up less a parodic pageant of fame whoredom, image manipulation and pseudo-feminist, have-it-all rhetoric than a conventionally pessimistic — and, by the way, very talky — thriller.

Whether all that talk winds up buying into or playing off of trite images of controlling women and callow men may depend on each viewer’s individual lens. What’s less debatable is how little fun Fincher seems to be having with the tussle. Put another way, in the context of the filmmaker’s oeuvre, “Gone Girl” could have used less “Social Network” classicism and more “Fight Club” brio — or even the moxie of “House of Cards,” the Fincher-produced Netflix series whose length, breadth and cynical streak might have more suitably served Flynn’s slippery characters and their unsettling sleights of hand (and heart).

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“Gone Girl” may get the job done as a dutiful, deliberately paced procedural, but it never quite makes the splash it could have as a thoughtful, timely and thoroughly bracing plunge.

Two stars. Rated R. Contains a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and profanity. 149 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.