No one loves to turn and face the strange quite like Guillermo del Toro. He's a world builder and a dream maker, even if those dreams often seem like the kind you'd have after eating a large bowl of spiders. And his latest (in theaters Dec. 17) is in fact a gorgeous Nightmare, albeit one that's ultimately less satisfying as a story — half traveling carnival, half faithful tribute to film noir — than as a heady exercise in style.
Those two halves are a literal line down the middle of the movie, and Alley begins with the better one: There's a man (Bradley Cooper) who looks like Indiana Jones' down-and-out brother in his brown tweeds and battered fedora, though he eventually submits that his name is Stanton Carlisle (he's not much of a talker at first). It's still the dregs of the Depression, and whatever he's left behind — there's an old homestead, a body, and a fire in his recent history — Stan would clearly prefer to wipe the slate clean. So he wanders into a circus sideshow and quickly makes himself useful, no odd job too grimy or grinding for a handful of quarters and a hot meal.
At least the entertainment is free: Mustachioed dwarfs, bearded ladies, a pretty girl called Molly (Rooney Mara) who can conduct electricity with her bare hands (it helps, apparently, to also wear a spangled bikini). There's even a worldly couple, Zeena and Pete (Toni Colette and David Strathairn), who work a popular mentalist act, using a combination of old vaudeville tricks and finely honed instincts. They're willing to teach him the basics, and he's eager to learn — so much that he's ready soon to take his own show on the road. That's when the narrative cleaves away from its cozy chosen family of freaks and geeks and becomes a second, separate movie, slicker and darker and a little less interesting.
With Molly at his side, Stan has an act he can class up for the nightclub set, rich people whose fine clothes and town cars don't make them any less susceptible than poor ones; they all want to believe. Except a cool skeptic with a PhD, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, a purring blond puma in a skirt suit): Lilith has no qualms calling him out as a charlatan, though she can't say she isn't intrigued. A woman like that knows a lot of deep-pocketed people that Stan — whom Cooper plays as a sort of ingratiating, increasingly craven Everyman who doesn't quite understand the limits of his charms — wouldn't mind getting closer to. And he'd like to get to know her better too, both Biblically and as a partner in grift; never mind that Zeena warned him of exactly those kind of ill-starred portents in her Tarot cards.
KERRY HAYES/Searchlight Pictures Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in 'Nightmare Alley'
If it all sounds a lot like noir night on Turner Classic Movies, that's because Nightmare is a fairly close remake of the 1947 Tyrone Power movie of the same name, considered a scandalous flop when it was released but now a cult touchstone. Del Toro's script (cowritten with his wife, Kim Morgan), mostly retains the bones of the original, though he tweaks the motivations, backstories, and alliances of several main characters, and has them do more than a few things the Hays Code would never allow. What's fully his are the signature bits of flair — who else would frame towering Art Deco monuments and pickled Cyclops babies in jars with equal, extravagant care? — and the lavish embrace of outcasts and dark underbellies.
If films like Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water were far-out tales of fantastic beasts told with real, touchable human tenderness, hope mostly tends to get squashed in the ordinary mortals here once the story becomes a genre piece. (Though no one seems more committed to the bit than Blanchett; sometimes she's so much in her own movie it borders on fourth-wall-breaking camp.) In that sense Nightmare Alley is both a beautiful-looking film and an oddly forgettable one, maybe because borrowed material is no match for the ingenious creations of del Toro's own mind. Though the man himself seems to disagree; his next project, due in 2022, will be a stop-motion Pinocchio. Grade: B