‘Mirror Mirror’ is stunning, sometimes in a good way

Julia Roberts. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Even if you’re one of the few moviegoers who goes to see Mirror Mirror because it was directed by Tarsem Singh (director of Immortals and the music video for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”), you’re bound to agree with Julia Roberts when she asks, “What is it with this kingdom?!”

Roberts plays the evil queen in Singh’s pleasantly perplexing variation on the Grimm brothers’ Snow White fairy tale.

First, the good news: Mirror Mirror certainly looks like a Tarsem Singh film. Singh’s a visually literate stylist. Even in a Singh-directed movie like The Cell, a serial-killer thriller starring J.Lo and Vincent D’Onofrio, he liberally uses arabesques and expressive curlicues that directly allude to everything from Christian icons to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Mirror Mirror has all that good stuff, too: Singh alludes to everything from Sally Potter’s film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to Ray Harryhausen’s Medusa monster from the original Clash of the Titans.

What’s off-putting about Mirror Mirror, however, is its wildly uneven mix of tones. As you might infer from the film’s spazzy, slapstick-heavy trailers, it is more than a little all over the place. Thankfully, it’s at least not nearly as hyper as the film’s ad campaign would suggest.

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As a fan of Singh’s freaky and highly idiosyncratic style, I was happy to see that Mirror Mirror is not just the work of a very talented artist who took a check and then went on autopilot.

It is an uneven work, though. Singh produces a stiff fight scene with giant killer marionettes and a deadly dull montage in which the seven dwarves teach Snow White how to be a thief, among other, much better sequences. It’s all the same to Singh, which is a shame because Mirror Mirror is entertaining and it does feature highly personal creative flourishes. It’s just not quite as well put together as it could have been.

The film wisely highlights Roberts’s Queen in the first half. She insists that Mirror Mirror’s narrative is actually her story and not Snow White’s (Lilly Collins). Snow White may have just turned 18 years old but the Queen is hellbent on getting married, especially after the young, rich and shirtless Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) stumbles into the Queen’s palace. But Snow White is no slouch. She sets off to find out what’s become of her absent father’s kingdom now that the Queen, Snow White’s stepmother, has taken control. And in the process, she also winds up bumping into Prince Alcott, who at the time is not only shirtless but also tied up after the seven dwarves have robbed him and his attendant Renbock (Robert Emms) of their gold and clothing.

There is a kernel of a good story at the heart of Mirror Mirror but the film’s pleasures are mostly superficial. Some snappy dialogue goes a long way to overcome the fact that neither Singh nor the film's screenwriters, Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller, seem particularly invested in Mirror Mirror’s main premise: the dueling stories of Snow White and the Queen.

Roberts really does give a terrifically catty performance as the Queen, purring narcissistically with great comic timing and poise. Singh knows exactly where to put his camera when he’s filming her. But when the film’s story takes center stage and Snow White joins forces with the seven dwarves, disenfranchised bandits who were exiled by the Queen and now live alone in the woods, you can just feel the life draining out of Mirror Mirror.

The film’s screenwriters let loose with jokes that are so far out of left field that they're distracting. At one point, Nathan Lane, playing the Queen’s loyal manservant, complains about being raped by a grasshopper. (It’s not a terribly long story, but it’s long enough.) There's also a jokey montage sequence in which the Queen primps herself for a ball she’s throwing in Alcott’s honor and she undergoes a spa treatment that begins with parrot shit being mashed up and used as an exfoliating foundation for her face.

These jokes outlying jokes don’t set the tone for Mirror Mirror, which is generally more reliant on screwball-lite banter. But they’re definitely indicative of just how unmoored Singh and the gang are from even a basic mood, idea or central conceit.

It’s unclear what the makers of Mirror Mirror were trying to accomplish beyond putting another spin on a very familiar yarn. Inevitably, their film becomes incoherent when its narrative concerns need to be resolved. It almost seems as if Singh and co. were a little nonplussed by their own ideas.

So if you do go revel in Mirror Mirror’s wanton weirdness, know this: You will, at one point, feel uncomfortable.

But it looks terrific and Julia Roberts is funny and the dialogue is often diverting and cute. It's a half-formed doodle of a film, but you could do a lot worse.