Thirty minutes into Man on a Ledge and recognizable minor actors like William Sadler and Kyra Sedgwick continued to roll in, to the point where the film began to resemble some old-school, not-quite-star-studded disaster epic. At one point, I expected Orson Welles and Margaret Rutherford to show up in the street-level crowd that watches ex-cop Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) as he perches on the ledge of the Roosevelt Hotel, threatening to jump, while guilt-ridden, alcoholic detective Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) tries to talk him into coming back indoors. The reasonably educated student of classic television will recognize the scenario from a 1958 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled “A Man with a Problem,” in which Gary Merrill plays the Sam Worthington role, with a few variations and reductions in the bystanders, flashback principals, and interventionists. Without giving away the ending, let it be observed that the now-forgotten director who was put in charge of the episode did a far better job making my palms sweat than did the director of Man on a Ledge, in spite of the latter’s swooping cameras and ever-urgent TV-cop-show music.
The film looks strangely outdated, and certain production decisions scream budgetary compromise, like having Cassidy emerge from the 47th-50th St./Rockefeller Center station instead of an undoubtedly more expensive Grand Central (which is closer to his destination), or expecting us to believe evil gazillionaire David Englander (Ed Harris) would have his whole high-rise panic room and titan-of-industry super-office across the street from the Roosevelt Hotel. Beyond my Big Apple-centric nitpicking, the cheapness is soaked into the material and direction as well. Director Asger Leth handles the material with a level of depersonalization that amounts to a kind of superhuman masterstroke; it’s strangely comforting and refreshing that he seems to actively try to make Man on a Ledge as efficiently dour and un-flashy as possible (no Tony Scott-inspired pyrotechnics here, thank you), and if you told me the film had been made by one of the no-name directors from Burn Notice or Psych, I wouldn’t bat an eye.
The script, on the other hand, is a hot mess of the highest order, taking some of the stalest chestnuts in the long, venerated legacy of the framed-cop-trying-to-clear-his-name genre and somehow fucking it up, in scene after scene after scene. Plot inconsistencies and implausible nonsense abound, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s a Mission: Impossible-style break-in sequence in which we’re supposed to believe that Jamie Bell (as the hero’s brother) and Genesis Rodriguez are two expert safecrackers, but whose work must be guided by stealth radio communications with Worthington, who’s apparently a more able-minded break-in expert. Or something. Considering there’s only so much you can do with a “man on a ledge” scenario (not for nothing, but the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode gets through it in 22 minutes, including flashbacks and street-crowd stuff, and has a knockout conclusion), the break-in business is a relatively welcome distraction.
Leth’s father, Jørgen Leth, was the subject of Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, in which Leth Sr. is obliged by the Dogville auteur to make five short-form adaptations of The Perfect Human, the old director’s canonical 1967 short, only with various obstructions to budget and creativity that must be thwarted by ingenuity and perseverance. One can cynically declare that that’s as close as Man on a Ledge will ever get to worthwhile film art, or one can speculate that the movie, which deserves to be relegated to direct-to-video purgatory, is itself some kind of test of character. Whether it’s a test for the younger Leth, or the audience, will remain a mystery.