Frequency is the sort of movie I have fun rewriting in my head; the movie in front of me floats away while I attend to the more interesting film playing behind my eyes. Perhaps that isn’t fair to the movie, but life isn’t fair, and attention spans even less so. If Frequency were involving on any level but the surface, it wouldn’t drive me into the arms of a better, imaginary film. For instance, here’s a grabber of a premise: What if the grown son of a man who died 30 years ago were magically able to communicate with his dad via ham radio? The son in question, John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel), was a boy of six when his fireman father, Frank (Dennis Quaid), fell in the line of duty. Unusual sunspots enable Frank, a ham-radio enthusiast, to connect with his grown son 30 years in the future. Conveniently for the plot, John takes out the old man’s radio on a whim and starts playing with it two days before the 30th anniversary of Frank’s death. I wondered what would have happened if John had hauled out the radio a day too late; there would’ve been no movie, but that doesn’t seem much of a loss.
At first skeptical, Frank quickly accepts the fact that his 36-year-old son is talking to him from 1999 — I would’ve had Frank’s disbelief take a lot longer to dispel — and he asks John what he’s doing these days. John, as it happens, is a cop; Frank has a moment of disappointment that the kid didn’t turn out to be a third-generation fireman, but hey, a cop is almost as acceptable to a macho guy like Frank. If John had grown up to be a computer programmer or interior decorator (or film critic), the movie would collapse. Much is also made of the childhood scenes in which Frank teaches the boy how to ride a bike, and we don’t even get a cheesy shot of the adult John riding one (maybe he could’ve grown up to be a bicycle cop).
Frequency was directed by Gregory Hoblit, a TV veteran whose feature films to date (Primal Fear, Fallen) have been rather gimmicky — even Edward Norton’s phenomenal performance in Primal Fear was central to the film’s gimmick. Here, the gimmick involves the efforts of the son and the departed father to save lives — first Frank’s own life, then his wife (and John’s mother). A lot of the plot focuses on some serial killings 30 years ago, a discovery of a skeleton, and the ability of Frank to stash things where they won’t be found for 30 years, so that John can retrieve them. Frank is reduced to a puppet wandering around doing whatever John’s disembodied voice tells him to; the sci-fi literal-mindedness of the plot neutralizes any ambiguity — such as the possibility that either man is imagining his son’s or father’s voice.
The time-warp drama could be fun and mind-bending; instead, it all seems to point to an ending that redefines “schmaltz.” Should I spoil it? It doesn’t really matter. If you see the movie, ask yourself what would be the most upbeat ending possible; you’ll see it all and more. Frequency doesn’t even supply any generational tension: The father and son love each other dearly, so there’s no animosity for them to overcome (and thus, not much meaning to their reconnection), and the movie doesn’t have much fun with the idea of a 1969-era man talking to a 1999-era man. Frequency isn’t genuine enough to be moving, and it’s too predictable to be suspenseful. When a plot has this many time-travel curves, it can’t really afford to throw any other curves our way. That would be another, better movie.