In a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles, a little girl with a broken arm (Catinca Untaru) meets a stuntman (Lee Pace) confined to bed with a broken back after a movie stunt gone wrong. The stuntman starts to spin fantastic yarns to the little girl in order to trick her into friendship, while musing over his own future. That's the jumping-off point for Tarsem Singh's The Fall, the first feature from the commercial and music video director since 2000's The Cell, who largely funded this film himself when he couldn't find other buyers.
The drama that follows is like a more weighty version of The Princess Bride or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - the stuntman is ostensibly telling a story to entertain the little girl, but really he's just trying to win her over (SPOILERS!) in order to get her to bring him pills so he can off himself. Meanwhile, we see the stories he's telling visualized in Singh's own extravagant manner, as if we're inside the little girl's head. Good setup, right? Well, sort of.
The thing is, even though the movie has lavishly designed costumes and extravagant locations and spectacular vistas, my favorite thing in the whole movie was the semi-improvised performance from young Ms. Untaru. She's the movie's only real sign of life - for a movie that was a self-financed labor of love, the whole enterprise is curiously passionless and manufactured.
This is my way of saying that I don't find Singh's vision to be visionary as much as it is just sort of expensive and indulgent, an arbitrary mishmash of storybook whimsy and oppressively impressive designer exotica. For me, the thing about being a 'visionary' director is that a cinematic vision should be about more than picking spectacular landscapes and architecture, or costumes, and sticking them in front of the camera within a conventional story. It should be about showing us things we haven't seen before, feel things we haven't felt before, and for me this movie was a dressed-up retread. I'll give Singh credit for the aspects of the movie that do work, like the performances from Untaru and Pace and certain aspects of the reality/fantasy balance - he pulls off certain aspects and scenes that any old hack wouldn't be able to, even though the overall package is ultimately a failure.
PS: This movie, along with John Boorman's Zardoz and Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, has forever marked Beethoven's 7th Symphony, 2nd movement as the theme song for artistic pretentiousness. Thanks guys!