I suppose some people will find this film very meaningful. Set, for whatever reason, in October 1988, Donnie Darko's story tracks four weeks in the life of its eponymous hero (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), an alienated teenager living in the ubiquitous Posh American Suburb we see in movies but never in real life, and struggling with the normal issues teenage boys have – as well as the possibility that he might be going insane. You see, Donnie's got this imaginary friend named Frank, a guy in a bunny suit with a metallic skull face who induces Donnie into committing major acts of vandalism.
Debut writer/director Kelly seems very much convinced that he's making an important movie, but he doesn't seem to have anything to say. If Donnie Darko is a satire, then what's it satirizing? Late '80s conservatism? Donnie's parents are Republicans, but they seem pretty approachable; the film's two villains (Beth Grant as a clueless right-wing teacher who confuses author Graham Greene with actor Lorne Greene – ha ha – and Patrick Swayze as a successful motivational speaker who just happens to live down the street from the Darkos) are played too broadly to have any real bite. Is it a horror movie? Not really, because there's no suspense. A character drama? I suppose, but everybody's so thinly sketched that nobody stands out, not even Donnie.
Look, I was an alienated teenage suburban boy in 1988. I think I can remember what it was like. Yet Donnie Darko feels foreign to me. Donnie is supposed to be feeling extremely isolated, but he's awfully outspoken in class, he can articulate his feelings to friends and family, and he's got no problem asking a girl out. Back in high school, we called guys like Donnie "popular".
That said, there's a Lynchian twist at the end that throws the four weeks of the story into question, so we aren't really sure whether we're looking at the real, ordinary Donnie Darko or not. And I admit that the final 5-10 minutes of the film are quite moving, thanks in no small part to a haunting cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World" on the soundtrack. This almost pushes Donnie Darko into the category of "mediocre film saved by a strong ending", but not enough.
Kelly's attempts at depth and darkness are sophomoric – not a big surprise, considering that he's a 26-year-old directing his first script after graduating from the USC film school. Lucky guy: once Drew Barrymore stumbled over his script, she liked it enough to get it bankrolled (she serves as executive producer and has a small, unconvincing role as Donnie's English teacher). Call it sour grapes, but I'm always suspicious when an unknown writer's first script gets made so quickly and painlessly. Real art usually comes out of a struggle to be heard and understood; "instant cult classics" like Donnie Darko are like the Emperor's New Clothes.