Brendan Fraser as Mortimer ‘Silvertongue’ Folchart
Eliza Bennett as Meggie Folchart
Paul Bettany as Dustfinger
Andy Serkis as Capricorn
Helen Mirren as Elinor Loredan
Jim Broadbent as Fenoglio
Rafi Gavron as Farid
Sienna Guillory as Resa Folchart
Jamie Foreman as Basta
Matt King as Cockerell
Steve Speirs as Flatnose

Of all the new ideas post-modernism has added to the story-telling pot, meta-fiction might be the most ephemeral in its qualities, certainly the hardest to use correctly. The attraction is obvious, the ability to pick and choose from favorite stories to populate a world, a kind of shortcut to meaning and interest. More than a few writers have made their careers out of the technique, but (usually for licensing reasons) it’s infrequently been tried in mainstream film (not counting parodies, which are different) with a range of success from the generally well regarded “Seven Percent Solution” to the abysmal “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” The latest to try its luck is “Inkheart,” the adaption of Cornelia Funke’s Tintenwelt stories, where people known as Silvertongues can bring books to life by reading them.

The Silvertongues in question belong to expert bookbinder Mortimer ‘Mo’ Folchart (Brendan Fraser) and his daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett), who have spent years traveling around the world looking for a copy of a little known fantasy adventure titled Inkheart. It turns out there’s a price to their ability. Whenever something comes out of a book, something else has to go back in to replace it. The first time Mo, unwittingly, used his ability, while reading Inkheart, he released the cold-blooded brigand Capricorn (Andy Serkis) into our world, and sent his wife Resa (Sienna Guillory) into it.

The problem with this sort of thing is obvious – it’s a walking deus ex machina. The characters can introduce whatever they need whenever they need it to get out of whatever situations they find themselves in. There are rules, of course. They have to have a book handy to read from, that sort of thing. But it usually doesn’t take much inventiveness to quickly get around that. It takes a storyteller with a great deal of restraint to keep the naturally interesting part of the idea alive without letting it overwhelm everything around. Restraint isn’t really director Iain Softley’s (“K-Pax”) forte, but he’s not exactly Michael Bay either, and “Inkheart” is somewhere in between.

The same thing that would draw an author to this technique will draw filmmaker as well, particularly the opportunity to mimic favored, iconic film moments. For Softley, the film in question (in one of a few major changes from the book) is “The Wizard of Oz” which Softley doesn’t miss many chances to reference, from moments with the flying monkeys and Dorothy’s twister to actually introducing Toto as a major character. There are some fleeting references to a few other stories, with a thief named Farid (Rafi Gavron) being dragged full sail out of “The 1001 Nights,” but for the most part it’s all “Oz.” More than once I wondered which movie Softley wanted to make, “Inkheart” or “Oz.” Still, there’s a lot of nice visual work involved and many of the pieces work very well in and of themselves, especially the comparison of Capricorn’s forces to the Nazi’s, with their jackboots and banners and even one henchmen filming everything for posterity.

And it certainly helps to have Serkis in the role. Capricorn is a fairly generic villain, but Serkis is a good enough actor to make him come across as actually menacing even while repeating fairly standard villain lines. In fact “Inkheart” is fairly well cast, often better than the characters can match. Ironically, the cast’s quality is the film’s biggest weakness, because while “Inkheart” is definitely Meggie’s story, it is not Meggie’s movie.

Softley has cast his two biggest names–Brendan Fraser as Meggie’s father and Paul Bettany as Dustfinger, a firejuggler accidentally brought out of Inkheart and desperate to go back–in what are essentially supporting roles. That can work of course, there have been plenty of successful ensembles cast that way, it just depends on how the director uses them. Helen Mirren, as Meggie’s irascible bibliophile aunt, blends in seamlessly with everyone else, making excellent use of the time she gets and then disappearing until needed again. For whatever reason though, Softley seems to have been compelled to put Fraser and Bettany front and center as much as possible, almost entirely at the expense of Meggie, and that creates a great deal of confusion in the film’s tone and pacing. It tends to lurch from moment to moment, an ungainly Frankenstein’s creation of scenes and ideas, held together mostly by good will.

Fraser and Bettany are both perfectly fine, though Dustfinger can wear on the nerves. He’s selfish, weak and more than a little stupid. In one of the films better meta-textual moments, he’s perfectly aware of his faults and is tormented by his inability to change them because that’s the way he was written. Still, even though his characteristics serve a genuinely interesting purpose, it is very hard to care for a stupid character. However, no matter how good they may be in their roles, it’s perfectly clear from the beginning this is not their story, which makes their contributions to its development and conclusion quite limited compared to their screen time, and every moment spent with them is spent in the wrong place.

Even smaller roles, like Elinor or Jim Broadbent as the author of Inkheart, who suddenly finds himself face to face with his own creations, are exceedingly well cast and performed. It also looks fantastic with its scenic Italian views, and the effects work is excellent. The Flying Monkey’s of “Oz” never looked so real and Capricorn’s demonic henchman The Shadow is genuinely scary. Only Rafi Gevron’s Farid is out of place, more often annoying than endearing. This should all work better than it does.

But it doesn’t. Kind of a “NeverEnding Story”-lite, “Inkheart” never makes full use of its strengths. The ideas about reality and fiction have already been explored better elsewhere, even in light family films, but that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. The metatextual references could be just fine as a framework for the story rather than what it’s all about, but it’s too confused in purpose for that. Is it about Mortimer’s search for his wife? Dustfinger’s quest to get home? Meggie’s coming of age? Softley doesn’t seem to know. Or more accurately, he wants it to be about all those things but isn’t sure how to do it, and that lack of focus and vision from its director stunts the entire film. But what else can you expect from the auteur that brought us “Hackers.”