Has John Cusack ever been more adorably out of his mind than when he's going bonkers on a minibar in "1408"? His aggravation is understandable. A little Samuel L. Jackson is somewhere inside. (It brings me great joy thinking there's a little Samuel L. Jackson inside anything. He brings mediocre things to life.) But for an explanation of why Jackson is there or why Cusack thinks he is, anyway, you'll have to see this moderately spooky thriller for yourself -- and, afterward , feel free to report your findings. That's the kind of thriller "1408" is: If you feel like solving a puzzle, it might be fun. Otherwise, it's a lot of consonants and no vowels.
Still, the movie is another opportunity for Cusack to shield emotional vulnerability in a cynic's armor. Taken from a Stephen King short story, "1408" has the actor playing Michael Enslin , a talented novelist turned myth-busting hack, who cranks out survival guides to haunted locations. His latest project is a mysterious room in a grand Manhattan hotel where over the years 56 people have died, many of natural causes. This is according to the peeved manager, whom Jackson plays with a two-tone goatee. He smoothly insists Michael find a different room, but Michael refuses. So it's off to 1408 , where the bathroom faucet gushes scalding water, the window conspires to crush his hand, and the clock radio plays the Carpenters's "We've Only Just Begun" whenever it pleases. Eventually, the room ropes Michael's wife (Mary McCormack ) and his dead daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony ) into the mayhem.
These are but a few of the tricks designed to kill Michael or drive him crazy. Jackson tells us the room is evil, and the production team comes up with a set that does seem elastically spiteful. Room 1408 is glacial one minute, deluged the next, a post-apocalyptic ruin later on.
Directed by Mikael Hafstrom , whose previous movie was the ludicrous Clive Owen- Jennifer Aniston noir "Derailed ," "1408" is a movie very much predicated on the delicate balance between perception and reality. Is Michael trapped in a kind of guilty purgatory? The hotel floor plan is in the shape of a big black "H," meaning he's trapped somewhere else ("You are here," says the map). The script is credited to Matt Greenberg and the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood," "Man on the Moon"), and it has a sense of humor generous enough to keep Cusack in on the joke. The soothing cadences of the hotel operator are a hilarious insult to Michael's erupting panic.
"1408" is actually a more respectable, more entertaining star-driven head-game than Sandra Bullock's "Premonition " or Jim Carrey's "The Number 23 ." Cusack is very much at home in the movie's blend of comedy and fright. Make that: would-be fright. The problem with this movie is that it feels too much like a joke rather than a true work of suspense. After "The Sopranos " series finale, no ending can seem too abrupt, and yet this one is a shrug. Hafstrom conjures a wonderful anticipatory mood of dread in the first 30 minutes then he blows it to stylish smithereens.
Maybe I was thinking fondly of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," which is the most famous instance of a hotel-bound Stephen King story turned into a film. "1408" lacks the lunging horror and dramatic architecture to be remotely comparable. Yet watching Cusack go maniacal in a fancy hotel of his own, I did think once or twice, "Heeeere's Johnny!"