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BRAIN DRAIN

It's called "The Cell." No, it's not about some doofus' rotten phone that goes off in the middle of a movie causing murderous thoughts all around him. It refers to an underground glass dungeon in which a crazy serial killer tortures his victims and then drowns them.

Jennifer Lopez plays a child psychologist who is tapped to enter the killer's brain after he's found in a coma.

She's to search out where he's hidden his latest victim, a young woman who may still be alive.

How, we all might ask astutely? Well, it seems she's part of a medical team that has a machine that can do just that - transport people into the brains of the comatose in the hope of bringing them out of it. She's been having walkabouts for a while inside the brain of a comatose little boy. They look a lot like fashion shoots in the Sahara. They call the unfortunate little boy Mister E. ("Mystery?" Get it ?)

Have no fear. The movie is not the career equivalent of Jennifer Lopez getting busted with gun-toting rapper/producer Sean "Puffy" Combs who, thus far, seems to have been a rap sheet waiting to happen. It was a smarter move than that. Granted, she isn't called upon to do all that much but model a lot of weird clothes and relax with a doobie the size of a fungo bat but it seems to me she gets extra credit points for saying "yes" to this baby.

This is not your father's sci-fi thriller. It's directed by video director Tarsem Singh. What that means is that every bit of the movie that is set inside someone's head - which seems to be more than half - is a long, slightly giddy exercise in cinematic surrealism.

To understand, then, what you're getting into with this wild, wild safari into the MTV version of the unconscious, don't start with that great serial killer fantasy "The Silence of the Lambs," but rather its slightly lesser offshoots "Seven" and "Kiss the Girls." Add a ton of Madison Avenue's version of Freudian symbolism and dream imagery. Also add a bit more cruelty than was probably necessary - so much that the movie itself seems sadistic at times, not the killer.

Offset all that with a very, very conventional plot we've all been seeing since Don Siegel's "Dirty Harry" - will the investigators rescue the serial killer's intended victim in time? (Take the serial killer out of the equation and you've got a question movies have been asking since Pearl White was tied to railroad tracks in silent serials - the other, sweeter kind of serial.)

It's hard to hold the excess cruelty against director Tarsem Singh. Take an inventive but inexperienced feature film director from MTV, give him oodles of money and tell him to go a little nuts if he wants to and he's bound to have difficulty drawing the line.

This is a very weird commercial film - so weird that probably the best way to look at it is as a kind of happy, corporate-sponsored experimental filmmaking.

Interesting tale, that. It's from New Line, whose parent company is AOL/Time-Warner, the favorite bugaboo conglomerate of the conservative culture warriors. New Line's major production executive is a fellow named Mike DeLuca who, at a certain point, was the honcho who said "yes" to the rain of frogs in "Magnolia." He was also the guy who had to open the vaults and green-light such safaris into the surreal as "Dark City" and "Pleasantville." I'll bet somewhere down the development road, he had something to do with that lunatic visionary kitsch masterpiece "What Dreams May Come," too.

DeLuca is that rare executive who actually deserves to have the kind of rep usually reserved for actors and filmmakers.

Meanwhile, farther down the food chain, Lopez' supporting cast here is ace. Vince Vaughn plays the cop on the serial killer's case, a fellow who may have a badly damaged childhood of his own. Vince D'Onofrio, a specialist in wacko roles, is the killer who morphs into all sorts of exotic, despotic digital demons inside his own head. Howard Shore, a specialist in wacko movie music ("Naked Lunch") wrote the music here.

What movies always do, of course, is make dreams and inner life far more glamorous and exotic than they usually are - full of blood drops, elaborate Broadway musical sets, insects, overdone costumes and camera angles and a little slow motion when things threaten to turn normal.

With most of us, our dream life is just as mystifying but a lot more mundane, tending to involve the International House of Pancakes and people we haven't seen since the third grade (whose names we never thought we'd remember). Some day some big-budget filmmaker will get the recognizable texture of dreams on film and won't that be a kick?

In the meantime, there's this thing, a nice little jaunt into the fun house of sci-fi fantasy and a whole lot more enjoyable than that gloomy Dutch uncle nightmare "Hollow Man."

For Lopez, then, it was a much more comprehensible decision than going club-hopping with Puffy and his pistol-packing posse.

MOVIE REVIEW

The Cell

Rated: R

Jennifer Lopez, above, wanders around inside the mind of a serial killer played by Vincent D'Onofrio. Directed by Tarsem Singh. Opening Friday in area theaters.

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