Writer(s): Toby Emmerich
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel, Shawn Doyle, and Elizabeth Mitchell
Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency is a ridiculously convoluted mess of a film that builds to an ending so neat and disgustingly sappy, that the Garth Brooks song that rolls over the end credits (the plainly titled "When You Come Back To Me Again") feels right at home. It’s sloppily written and narrowly-focused—every event altered seems to only directly effect the main characters, with no far-reaching implications beyond those that can’t be patched up by a simple action from one of its stars. It breaks off more than it can chew, and can’t decide if it wants to be a drama, science fiction, police procedural, or serial killer film, even though it spends a good amount of time dabbling in each of them. When it’s all said and done, it’s quite technically a terrible film.
And yet I love the hell out of it.
I can’t really explain why. Its flaws are evident even as the events play out on screen. It gets more and more unbelievable as it wears on, and let’s be honest, a movie about a guy talking to his dead father over a HAM radio doesn’t exactly resonate with plausibility. But even by the film’s loose standards, the twists become so disjointed and messy near the end that it becomes apparent we are simply being duped by the whim’s of the writer, instead of being put in a living, breathing world all its own.
But it’s such a completely interesting failure that I was absolutely transfixed by it, both times I have seen it. A lot of it has to do with the great performances by Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel, who play father and son, respectively. Quaid is Frank Sullivan, a firefighter who succumbs to a blaze in 1969, leaving behind his wife, Julia, and six-year-old son, John. Thirty years later, John, who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend and now lives alone in the same house he grew up in, finds his dad’s old radio buried in a closet, and tests it to see if it still works. Lo and behold, he does make contact with someone, and he slowly realizes it’s his dad, circa 1969!
The scenes where father and son rekindle after thirty years are emotional and heartfelt. Granted, most of these are simply by default, as we, as humans, are automatically wired to find comfort in these scenes. Even if you have never experienced loss on a personal level, can’t you imagine what it would be like to never be able to see someone you loved again? Still, they pack quite a wallop, and you may find yourself reaching for the nearest tissue box. But Frequency’s plot is only starting to take shape, because by this point we are only about at the half-hour mark.
Armed with his knowledge of the present, John decides he’s going to save his father from the blaze that took his life. Frank, at this point, is still leery of this whole situation, but heeds his future son’s advice and makes it out alive! However, it’s a small victory, because John learns that it has only altered the future: Instead of dying in a fire back in 1969, his dad will die in 1989, from cancer caused by his excessive smoking. But just when you think you’re finally getting settled into the story, you find out there’s still more: His mother becomes the target of a serial killer, who offs her a week after his dad survives the blaze, back in 1969 again!
So now the son must guide the father to prevent that from happening, then he goes one step further by having him try to prevent the murders of all of the serial killer’s victims. Then stuff happens on top of other stuff, and the whole story just descends into a chaotic mess of genre clichés, as if writer Toby Emmerich is desperately trying to pad his entire resume with just one movie. As if all this isn’t bogus enough, the dust settles, and we’re left with a gag-inducing happy ending that conveniently ties up every loose end into a pretty little bow.
This is the kind of movie I hate ninety nine times out of a hundred, but director Gregory Hoblit confidently navigates through the complex material, delivering a sure-handed final product that would have buried most other directors dumb enough to approach it. The dramatic scenes pack a punch, the twists and turns are at least fascinating, when they’re not utterly gripping, and even the serial killing aspect, which seem like they were cut and pasted in to an otherwise finished script, somehow works, at least as best it can within this general framework.
If you’re looking for me to explain myself, to defend every nuance and every contrived detail, to describe in explicit terms why I came to this conclusion, I will refer you to the Apple Jacks commercials of the mid ‘90s, in which children, who are notified of the cereal tasting nothing like apple, are asked why they like it. “I don’t know. We just do.” Couldn't have said it any better myself.
RECAP: It’s a convoluted, clichéd mess that weaves its way through three genres, some of them completely unnecessary, and yet, through a mix of great acting and often gripping (though increasingly implausible) twists and turns, manages to somehow not only be a competent movie, but often an excellent one. Even the ridiculously upbeat ending had me hook, line, and sinker, and I hate happy endings. Quite simply put, this is an underrated gem, and well worth a watch.