Any movie that has Claire Danes playing a fallen star sounds too painful for words. The irony! "Terminator 3," "Stage Beauty," "The Family Stone," "Evening": Neither her luminousness nor her intelligence has been put to particularly thrilling use. They haven't, really, since she blazed through Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet." For her sake, I'm embarrassed to remember how long ago that was. At this point even she seems over herself. The expression she wears in "Stardust," a romantic science-fiction fantasy with her as the aforementioned fallen star, breaks your heart. It seems stuck between a grimace and a cringe: It's the face of a maiden caught taking out the garbage.
This movie also happens to have parts for Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Peter O'Toole, Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais, and others. So "Stardust" is not just a nadir for Danes. It stinks for almost everybody. But Danes is the one person who seems to show it. The setting is a crypto-medieval English village called Wall, so named for the pile of cobblestones that separates the villagers from Stormhold, the parallel universe just beyond it.
One love-struck villager named Tristan (Charlie Cox) promises to deliver a fallen star to the too-beautiful lass (Miller) for whom he pines, requiring him to sneak across the wall. He finds his crashed star, named Yvaine, but has to protect her from both the family of feuding princes who need her powers to ascend to the throne and the wizened witch (Pfeiffer) who wants the star's heart to keep her looking young forever.
"Stardust" certainly could have gone somewhere fun. But the magic and zip you need to get a blimp like this off the ground is scarce. Nothing Matthew Vaughn does with the material -- he and Jane Goldman adapted it from Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess's novel -- generates much enchantment. Vaughn produced Guy Ritchie's gangster pictures, and, before this film, made his own knockoff called "Layer Cake." The crackle of those movies never breaks into this new one. "Stardust" looks drearily secondhand. The powers that shoot from Pfeiffer's fingertips recall the ectoplasm from "Ghostbusters." So do a lot of the effects. When the camera can spin or swoop or whoosh, it does, which is to say it's doing this for half the movie. The music is the sort of crashing stuff meant to signal action, but for a lot of the movie it is the action. Are we supposed to be under a spell or under attack?
The filmmakers go for the kinkiness and naughtiness in the book but don't know how naughty to be. It's as if the ribaldry has been focus-tested out. When Pfeiffer's witch pretends to be an innkeeper to close in on Danes's star, she offers a massage, which should be the year's erotic high point. But that sequence is confused with jokey business. The movie isn't remotely as sardonic or irreverent as it so clearly wants to be. Pfeiffer, playing her second shrew of the season, looks like she's enjoying herself in a part that shows off her severe beauty and her comedic prowess, but the role is a dud that seems borrowed from that Bette Midler Halloween turkey "Hocus Pocus."
As the king, O'Toole exits early, which is lucky since his costume appeared to be devouring him anyway. Rupert Everett plays one of his sons, defenestrated in the opening minutes. His punishment for an early escape is having to spend the rest of the movie sitting around as a member of the growing chorus of ghoulish dead princes, in bleached-out special effects no less. (Wouldn't that have been the occasion for ectoplasm?)
The movie goes right exactly once: When De Niro shows up as a closet-case pirate for a series of daylight sequences aboard his floating ship. If ever there was an occasion for him to fax in a note saying the dog ate my performance, this would be it. But surrounded by the exuberant bunch of actors playing his crew, De Niro makes a macho-hammy-swishy mess of himself. ("Trés you!" he tells Cox). He's terrible, but he's having, well, a gay old time. It's contagious. When Danes is around him the pain in her smile is all gone.