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Disturbia’ plays house

Erin McGinn | Friday, April 20, 2007

There are a couple things in this world that are just not smart to do. It’s not smart to yell “fire” in a movie theatre, for example. It’s also not smart to remake classic films – especially Hitchcock movies.

Even though the new film “Disturbia” isn’t an official remake of the Jimmy Stewart/Grace Kelly classic, “Rear Window,” it’s hard not to make comparisons between the two. This strongly works to the disadvantage of “Disturbia.” While it’s not a bad film on its own, it pales in comparison to its cinematic predecessor.

The film stars Shia LaBeouf as Kale (or the Jimmy Stewart role), the troubled youth who is confined to his house. Where Stewart’s character was injured and wheelchair-bound, the modern technological counterpart is an ankle bracelet that Kale received after punching his teacher at school.

Bored at home, Kale starts surveying the neighborhood with his best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) and a pair of binoculars. Added to their group is Ashley (Sarah Roemer), the hot blonde in the bikini who recently moved in next door and met the pair after she noticed Kale spying on her.

Ashley isn’t the only one Kale watches, however. Another neighbor, for example, has an affair with his housekeeper. And the younger kids who’ve been teasing the confined Kale apparently watch a lot of porn. Most importantly, though, is the neighbor behind Kale’s house – Mr. Turner (David Morse), a strange guy who seems to have unhealthy relationships with women that might be prostitutes. To make matters worse, he drives a car that looks suspiciously like one that the cops suspect may belong to a high-profile serial killer.

But director D.J. Caruso stumbles where Hitchcock succeed best – the suspense of wondering if Kale is really onto something, or if his cabin fever is getting the best of him. What Caruso does get right, however – and where the film manages to distance itself from “Rear Window” – is in the ways the kids relate and interact in a modern world where iPods and laptop are ubiquitous, and where much of their daily lives is reducible to digital blips. Cell phones, the Internet and even a garage door opener all play pivotal roles in the detective story, often adding a nice layer of suspense to the film.

While LaBeouf and Roemer can’t compare to the classic elegance of Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, they do have their own endearing teenage qualities. LaBeouf in particular possesses the same kind of dorky charm that John Cusack did in his youth. All of the teenagers come across as real characters, which is always good to see (and hard to find) in teen flicks. David Morse delivers an exceedingly creepy performance as the potential bad guy. He exudes an evil air that dominates the film as the tone progresses from a teen comedy into a genuinely frightening thriller.

Admittedly, “Disturbia” starts out a bit slow, but once the detective story takes off, it’s an enjoyable popcorn-thriller with a surprisingly good cast and a much better story than expected. Yes, it’s hard to ignore the film’s obvious cinematic roots, but in the end, the repackaging is good enough that it almost stands on its own.