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06 Sep 2018

Tech Thriller: 'Searching' Takes a Surprisingly Good Premise and Ruins It With a Ridiculous Detour

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John Cho in Searching. John Cho in Searching.

Regular readers know that I can’t stand most found-footage films. I also bitch a lot about movies where the whole damn thing happens on a computer screen, with the director finding cute ways to never cut away from Skype, FaceTime, Words With Friends, etc., while the plot unfolds.

Well, Searching is strange, because I actually almost like the way director Aneesh Chaganty utilizes computer screens, apps and news reports to tell his story. I also really like the central performance by John Cho as David Kim, a slightly annoying parent who discovers through a break in technological communication that his daughter, Margot (Michelle La), has gone missing.

What I can’t forgive is the terrible detour the mystery takes into ridiculous, convenient and unimaginative territory. The screenplay really blows it in the end, and is further hindered by a stiff and strange performance from Debra Messing as a cop assigned to Margot’s case.

The film’s start is cute enough, with David and Margot having a harmless argument about Margot’s failure to take the trash out. The argument establishes Margot as a generally normal kid, while her father is a bit of a tight-assed paranoiac and kind of a daughter-stalker.

David’s overprotective nature has something to do with the loss of Pamela (Sara Sohn), his wife and Margot’s mom. Some of the movie’s more-touching moments involve David looking at old computer videos of Margot and Pamela playing piano. A video of David and Pam running together, with Pam stopping because she is too ill, reminds of the melancholy opening of Up.

Back to the main portion of the film: When Margot still fails to take the trash out, and then doesn’t respond to his various texts and calls, David starts to get very twitchy. He eventually calls in a missing-person report, and Detective Vick (Messing) comes on board. This is where the film begins to come apart.

Messing, unlike Cho and La, doesn’t come off as a real person using all of these gadgets and technologies; she comes off more like a big star making a one-dimensional cameo on C.S.I.: Bummed Out Cops. She has moments in the movie that are so tonally off that they become funny rather than serious. Messing has been great in past roles, but she is woefully miscast here.

That’s not entirely her fault; the story developments Searching employs in its closing act are some major bullshit. The film takes itself seriously; it’s not any kind of spoof or sly take on social networking and telecommunications, despite the aforementioned B.S. When the story goes off the rails, the movie becomes a lame joke.

Cho and La come through as champs. I actually think I could’ve enjoyed a simple film with these two communicating on their gadgets for one day about normal things, and dealing with the loss of Pam, without the missing-person element. The performers (and the director) pull off the feat of making FaceTime and iMessage communications semi-watchable without being too gimmicky … at least for a while. That’s not an easy thing to do.

Searching, in the end, is a movie that could’ve been so much greater—perhaps an indictment of our over-reliance on gadgets to communicate—if it had stayed away from the ridiculous. Turns out it’s just a third-rate thriller wrapped up in a snazzy modern bow. If this story, and its ending, were presented as a straightforward, linear movie without Facebook and FaceTime, it would be lambasted.

It’s not as bad as Unfriended, or your average found-footage movie, but Searching is pretty bad all the same. I’m seriously hoping that the existence (and moderate success) of films like this doesn’t lead to Hollywood scribes dusting off old, rejected TV scripts thinking they can repackage them as computer screen thrillers. Let’s stop with the computer-screen movies, OK? They’re just a tad hokey.

Searching is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

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