The most interesting thing about history is always the "what if." What if, for example, Edgar Allan Poe were actually a dashingly romantic, goateed action hero shaped like John Cusack, who gallantly rode gun-toting on horseback to save the woman he loved (Alice Eve) from a diabolical genius? (Never mind, of course, that the actual Poe was sickly, drunk and possessed of a head that weighed more than the rest of his body, and that he married his own 13-year-old cousin.)
The Raven—similar to director James McTeigue's previous film, V for Vendetta—is a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy for gothic-minded 12-year-olds, a Victorian Never-Never Land for the lonely and "misunderstood" in which murders based on Poe's poems can be solved only by the lovelorn genius himself. There are costume balls with gilt masks and cloaks, death riding horseback, urgent tours through catacombs and a seemingly endless parade of improbable deaths. Really, the film should be crimson candy for Edgar Allan Poe's natural fan base of boys who wear lipstick and girls who part their ink-black hair relentlessly in the middle.
But it isn't. In part, this is because the film hedges its bets into a bland, ploddingly humorless stew that refuses to be funny even by accident until the film's genuinely rib-busting final shot. Poe could have been interesting or at least striking as an unconventional hero, but in the personage of Cusack he is merely doe-eyed and stilted. Cusack's lack of likeness to Edgar Allan in either character or physicality must have been sensed by the director, and so he has Cusack's Poe drunkenly running through a bar quoting his own poetry. "A drink to any man who can complete the following line: 'Quoth the Raven….'" A Frenchman, of course, is the one to comply; it is an in-joke about Poe's transatlantic popularity that would have potentially been funnier if it had not been stepped on by Poe himself in his next line.
It's almost petty, in this situation, to get upset with the wild implausibilities of the murders and motives, the shoddy police work and the gaping plot holes. But a movie that reminds us constantly of its hero's genius should at some point convince us that human intelligence is a real thing, not merely an irritating and pretentious affectation. As it is, the film's only homage to Poe is that it is, indeed, dreary.
SEE IT: The Raven is rated R. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Mill Plain, Cornelius, Living Room Theaters, City Center, Sherwood.