By Eleanor Ringel Cater
We hate to talk about Nancy Reagan while slimming down Jordan Peele, but there you go.
Just say no to “No”.
Despite a few ingenious touches and a nod or two to movie history, Peele’s third film is an inconsistent and chaotic disappointment. His glorious “Get Out” debut suggested he could be the next Hitchcock.
But “Nope” raises fears that he could be the next M. Night Shyamalan, who also knocked it out of the park with “The Sixth Sense,” but never got his groove back, so to speak.
Shyamalan’s third feature was a disaster called “Signs” about a widowed farmer (Mel Gibson, pre-banishment) who encounters an alien invasion. Not sympathetic, touchy-feeling Spielberg aliens like ET, but mean, ill-intentioned ’50s aliens like the bulbous-headed aliens in, say, “Invasion of the Saucer Men.”
“Signs” was so poorly put together that you expected it to be some sort of reveal. For example, Gibson was a mental patient suffering from hallucinations (hmm) or maybe it was a treatise on the distorting side effects of isolation and widower grief.
But, uh, no.
“Signs” was about an alien encounter that was about as compelling as poor Mel’s mea culpas after his infamous drunken encounter with the cops.
“Nope” is a bit better than “Signs” because Peele loads it with entertaining subplots. It’s like he took some obscure Hollywood story and thought, damn it, this is interesting and it is too and this and…
The main story takes place on a California ranch owned by the reclusive OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his more outgoing sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer). The fact that there is considerably less demand for horses in Hollywood these days is the least of their problems. For starters, there’s the supernatural death of their father (Keith David), literally shot down by pennies from the sky (well, it’s a downpour of deadly coins).
Then there’s the odd cloud on the back forty that just won’t budge. And something weird is happening in the fake third-rate Wild West town next door, run by a former child star (Steven Yeun).
The truth is out there, but the siblings are less interested in what it might be than in the so-called “money shot” (or, as they amusingly dub it, “the Oprah shot”) that they can sell to the right media outlet. To that end, they bring in a techno-nerd (Brandon Perea) who works for an electronics store and an old-school veteran cameraman (Michael Wincott).
Peele is fascinated by pieces of Hollywood ephemera. Like the chimp star of a ’90s sitcom who goes crazy on set and annihilates most of the cast while a cheering sign flashes sadly in the background. Or the rarely noticed fact that the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s famous debut film “The Horse in Motion” is black (and, in that film’s story, OJ’s great-great-great-grandfather and Emerald).
Any of these stories could have made for a compelling movie, but Peele refuses to commit to anything other than his rather mundane saucer flick “Watch the skies.” And yes, the alien spacecraft does look like a flying saucer.
Kaluuya, who was unforgettable on “Get Out” and recently won a well-deserved Oscar for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” holds “Nope” with his commanding presence and charismatic underplay. Palmer, alas, is mostly boring and, in its own way, as fuzzy as the film. And Yeun, a former “Walking Dead” star and Oscar nominee for “Minari,” doesn’t have enough to do.
Peele seems less of a one-hit wonder than someone who is temporarily off the track. Which may be the scariest thing about “No”.
When a character says of someone, “Her ex booked a pilot on the CW,” you wonder if Peele hangs around Hollywood himself too long and might need some fresh air. Or at least a little air spared by market brunches and private screening rooms.