Everybody involved with Mirror Mirror is trying to be funny. It's a strange, sometimes uncomfortable, sight to see, not unlike when a dramatic actor or an athlete hosts Saturday Night Live and you think to yourself, "Let's see how this is gonna work ..." And in the case of Mirror Mirror, it mostly plays out the same way as a typical SNL episode does: It's a mixture of good and bad and indifferent, and when it's all over it's time to go to bed and forget the whole thing.
Mirror Mirror is a re-imagining of the Snow White story you probably know from the Disney movie with the dwarfs and the singing and the poisoned apple. This is just the latest film that wants to reboot a female-driven tale for the post-Twilight era, although it's more like Tim Burton's campy Alice in Wonderland than the über-moody Red Riding Hood. (The other re-imagining of the Snow White story coming out this year, which is called Snow White and the Huntsman and has Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart in it, looks like it's going to be your dreary Snow White entry.)
The film stars Lily Collins (Phil's daughter) as Snow White, who's under the thumb of the evil queen (Julia Roberts, basically playing into the negative impressions you have of her). The queen isn't happy that Snow White will someday be the fairest, so she wants the girl killed. But instead, Snow White manages to meet up with seven dwarfs (led by Danny Woodburn), who are like an A-Team of little-people bandits, and a gallant prince (Armie Hammer), who is instantly smitten with Snow, even though the queen wants him for herself.
Like a Saturday Night Live skit, Mirror Mirror works under the premise of "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if we took something that everybody knows and just tweaked it a little?" And so we have the wiseass version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which probably explains why Nathan Lane (playing the queen's valet) is the film's spiritual center. His knowingly hammy persona is so well-oiled that it serves as the North Star for everyone else in this movie; the rest of the cast try their best to seem as comically effortless. Unfortunately, there's a lot of huffing and puffing going on.
Part of the blame for Mirror Mirror's scattershot comedic tone has to go to director Tarsem. The man behind The Fall and Immortals isn't exactly known for his light touch. (I chuckled a few times in Immortals, but I'm pretty sure that film's heavily homoerotic vibe wasn't intentional.) No, what he does is give you pageantry: You can gape at his movies all day long because of how intricately designed they are, and Mirror Mirror is probably his most visually accomplished, maybe because he's finally free to make a pure fairy-tale film. But Tarsem can't bring much wit to Mirror Mirror, and when he tries he seems to get all panicky, throwing in strained physical comedy or quickly cutting back and forth between characters during dialogue scenes in the hopes that this will signal that some funniness is happening. Tarsem makes movies that always seem like they're encased in amber, so his actors are on their own to make this attempt at a hip Snow White breathe.
That proves especially problematic for Collins, a relative new face who doesn't bring with her any noticeable personality beyond being the fairest of them all. Much better is Hammer, who seems well on his way to having a career where he's always playing characters who are just really, really gorgeous. At least in Mirror Mirror that's kind of the joke: He's not supposed to have the pathos he brought to J. Edgar or the sharpness of The Social Network. Nope, he's just the handsome prince, so he mocks himself with good humor. Then there's Roberts. I've mostly given up on her as an actress who can believably portray human beings. (Her one good performance in the last several years, Duplicity, works mostly because it operates on an enjoyable movie-world non-reality.) Playing an evil queen would seem to suggest she knows why you don't like her as a person—the character's chief characteristic is how thoroughly pleased she is with herself—but only rarely is Roberts, y'know, actually funny in the movie.
What does that leave us with? Some cool effects, a bunch of lame dwarf comic relief, more than a touch of mugging, and not as much of a self-congratulatory tone as you might expect from a project like this. But the longer Mirror Mirror rolled along, the more I realized just how much it resembles Burton's Alice in Wonderland: It's a grand spectacle that mostly stands around announcing, "See how much fun we're having?" You'll laugh intermittently at Mirror Mirror. But more often, you'll notice where you're supposed to be laughing and aren't. Better to just stare at the pretty pictures—that, Tarsem knows how to do.