The parts of the film that work - and yes, I kind of do mean, the parts of the film that don't not work - are surprisingly due mostly to the presence of Shia LaBeouf. It was not long ago at all that, thanks to Bobby and The Battle of Shaker Heights, I mostly hated this kid. Then, he had an interview in which he delivered the greatest quote in the history of celebrity puff pieces:
"To go from Emilio Estevez to Michael Bay is like walking out of, you know, like in a hammock in the sky, hanging out drinking Pina Coladas with Jesus and then getting smacked in the face and thrown in the devil’s shitpile and having to make a movie. I swear to God."
Now, comparing Emilio Estevez to Jesus is patent absurdity, but calling the set of a Michael Bay film "the devil's shitpile" and mentioning that he's only making Transformers for the exposure? That's gold. And yes, it does make him sound like an utter douchebag, but let us not ask that actors try to be more than God made them.
So, here's what this arrogant little man brings to Disturbia: he takes a completely gormless character who behaves in ways that are not recognizably human, and turns him into somebody that you'd more or less accept at face value if ever you encountered him in life. It helps considerably that LaBeouf has such a damn soft baby face that makes him look far younger than his twenty years, or even his character's seventeen. He really does appear to be a kid playing at being a grown-up, and that makes some of the more dizzying flights from realism that plague the story (especially in the third act) sort of kind of easy to swallow.
The other pretty good performance is David Morse as the film's villain. Morse is one of my favorite examples of the "actor who is better than every single one of his roles," and he classes up a standard-issue sarcastic psychopath by subscribing to the less-is-more school of thinking: he hardly ever speaks over a conversational whisper, and even during the film's inevitable climactic chase in the dark, he doesn't really scream, and when he says something barbarously typical like, "I wish you weren't making me do this," damned if you can't actually hear a note of apology in his voice. It's not unlike Anthony Hopkins's default "psycho" setting, if Hopkins weren't a drag queen.
The rest of the cast, not so memorable. As Shia's mom, Carrie-Anne Moss is totally wasted. It's not that she's not good in the role, it's that there's no role for her to be good in; it's a plot element, a human-shaped narrative chunk that exists solely to bat our hero around aimlessly. The rest of the young people - Sarah Roemer as the love interest and Aaron Yoo as the wacky friend - are hopeless, and not just hopeless in the sense that I don't think they quite have a handle on their characters, hopeless in the sense that they haven't quite mastered the art of reciting dialogue.
I'd really intended not to let this turn into a whole "versus Rear Window" thing, but it's hard as hell not to. I'm going to go a little controversial here, and propose that Alfred Hitchcock was pretty good at directing movies. As everybody who has ever read film criticism knows, he made Rear Window a referendum on gossip, voyeurism and the act of watching movies themselves. The slightly ridiculous conceit of the film - a wheelchair-bound photographer decides to become an amateur detective - is obliterated by the way that the film scrutinizes our cultural obsession with the way that other people live. (Do you think it is a mistake that when we first see Grace Kelly, it is on the cover of a LIFEesque magazine? No, I don't either). Speculating on whether or not our neighbor is a killer is just another degree of wondering if that couple is having good sex or not.
To the credit of screenwriters Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth, Disturbia kind of swings for a 2000s version of that theme. Many, many internet-generation toys and technologies are name-dropped and depicted, with admirable specificity: iTunes, Xbox Live, camera phones, mock ringtones and so forth (specificity not necessarily implying accuracy: "I cancelled your iTunes!" ...well, okay then). There are some indications that Kale's (LaBeouf) turn to spying and sleuthing is related to his generational difficulty in dealing with people through any means other than beeping digital junk.
But that thread is left for dead after a very small portion of the film's running time, and director D.J. Caruso never seems to have much of a handle on it, anyway. Frankly, Caruso never seems to have much of a handle on anything. It's a slack movie with erratic pacing and leaden scare moments that come along at the most predictable moments with the precision of Noh theater. I allow myself to wonder if the film might have a more discernable arc of rising dread for those members of the audience who have not seen Rear Window, but to merely acknowledge that some people might see Disturbia who have never seen Rear Window fills me with an acidic bitterness that makes it hard to breathe.
I wouldn't call the film "dull," exactly, but it's very hard to get around how much it ambles along without any real sense of urgency. Too much time is devoted to frivolous character moments that don't enhance the plot, and don't work to flesh out the characters, whose psychology is determined largely by the two word phrase that would describe them on a tarot card (The Pretty Girl; The Goofball; The Hardass Cop), and whose performers are generally not up to the rigorous standards of acting like people. Disturbia just kind of happens all over the screen, and then it stops, and then you go out for a pee.
(Also, the opening sequence, in which a father and son fly-fish, couldn't possibly feel more like a Coca-Cola commercial, and to be honest a more successful one than the Coca-Cola Company has been producing of late).