Clunky dialogue, strange characters ruin provocative premise in M. Night Shyamalan's 'Old'

  • A vacationing family (Vicky Krieps, Thomasin McKenzie, Gael García Bernal and Luca Faustino Rodriguez) grapple with the horrors of a mysterious beach in "Old."

    A vacationing family (Vicky Krieps, Thomasin McKenzie, Gael García Bernal and Luca Faustino Rodriguez) grapple with the horrors of a mysterious beach in "Old." Courtesy of Universal Pictures

 
 
Updated 7/22/2021 10:19 PM

"Old" -- ★ ★

"Can you believe I found this online?" a delighted Prisca asks husband Guy at the beginning of "Old," as their family arrives at a glistening beach resort.

 

Not to be a Debbie Downer quite so soon, but this isn't a good sign -- for the family OR the film. "Can you believe I found this online?" has become the hackneyed catchphrase of the vacation horror movie. Every time a character says that, whether at a dreamy English estate or a stunning coastal retreat, you can set your watch -- the first body will appear in minutes.

Still, we hope for the best. "Old" is an M. Night Shyamalan film, so you know the premise will be clever and provocative. And frankly, we're a captive audience. It's summer, it's been an awful year, and we could all use two hours on a beautiful beach, even if it's virtual. Just give us a few meaty characters we can root for, a modicum of backstory to make us care, and decent dialogue to move things along. Not much to ask, right?

Apparently, it is. Because Shyamalan bafflingly dispenses with all that, relying solely on an enticing premise and pretty scenery. It's just not enough.

The characters are quirky, but trust us, not in a good way -- in an annoying, instantly tedious, I-dare-you-to-care-about-me way. The kids are nice enough, but each adult is more exasperating than the next, and more ridiculous. It's perhaps not their fault. The dialogue is often cartoonishly clumsy. You'll surely find yourself belly-laughing several times, only to sheepishly remind yourself this isn't a comedy.

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Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) confront horror on a secluded beach in "Old."
Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) confront horror on a secluded beach in "Old." - Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Prisca and Guy are vacationing with their kids, Trent, 6, and Maddox, 10. Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) is an anxious insurance actuary -- not the most logical use of Bernal's charms, but OK -- constantly spouting stats on how people die in accidents. Prisca (Vicky Krieps) is a museum curator, clearly holding back a secret. There are marital troubles, perfunctorily established in an early scene where the couple argues, kids listening in. "You're always thinking of the future!" Prisca yells. "It makes me feel not seen!!" Guy replies: "You're always thinking of the past!" The kids have no idea what the heck they're talking about. Honestly, would you?

The next day, they're offered a tantalizing opportunity by the creepy resort manager: a trip to a secluded beach on a nature preserve, surrounded by cliffs. Soon they're off in a hotel van (driven by Shyamalan himself, in a small part) along with another family: Charles, an imperious doctor (Rufus Sewell), Chrystal, his young, beauty-obsessed wife (Abbey Lee), their young daughter and the doctor's older mother.

On the gorgeous beach, things quickly turn weird. Maddox recognizes a well-known rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), sitting dazed in the distance. Trent goes swimming, only to confront the floating corpse of a woman, who'd recently been spending time with the rapper. The group tries to call for help, but there's no signal. Two new guests arrive -- Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a therapist who suffers epileptic seizures, and her husband Jarin (Ken Leung), a nurse.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Father (Gael García Bernal) and son (Alex Wolff) confront horror on a secluded beach in "Old."
Father (Gael García Bernal) and son (Alex Wolff) confront horror on a secluded beach in "Old." - Courtesy of Universal Pictures

But all this turbulence pales against what's suddenly happening to everyone: They're aging. Rapidly. It's more visible with the kids, who suddenly go from school-aged to teenagers (Alex Wolff and the lovely but underused Thomasin McKenzie). Panic sets in, and there's no way out -- when anyone tries to leave, something attacks their brain and they black out.

What's happening? The group calculates that a half-hour on that beach equals a year of life. Obviously, people will die. The only question is who goes first.

But ... we don't care about any of them! If we'd been made to care, maybe we'd be concerned when someone has a soccer-ball sized tumor removed from their stomach. Or by the unintended pregnancy, the mental breakdown, the murder, the drowning, the seizure … oh, and one very bad calcium deficiency!

How silly is the dialogue? Small example: Amid the bloody mayhem on the beach, Trent says earnestly to his parents: "Dad, Mom, you guys gotta stay hydrated." Again, this is NOT played for laughs.

Of course, it all comes down to a Shyamalan-style final twist -- the most entertaining part of the film, but it comes way, way too late. Listen, we're all up for some summer fun on the beach. But by the time we're allowed in on the secret here, we're feeling a bit tired. And maybe for good reason. This film lasts an hour and 48 minutes. So, just a warning: By the end, you'll be four years older.

• • •

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Ken Leung

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Other: A Universal release. In theaters. Rated PG-13 for strong violence, disturbing images, suggestive content, partial nudity and brief strong language. 108 minutes

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