Anyone who has ever balked at the impossible vastness of the New York City living quarters on perpetual display in mainstream films and TV sitcoms will find some cathartic value in "Panic Room," a suspense thriller with a hard-on for real estate. Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a new divorcee whose ex-husband made his bones in pharmaceuticals, medicates her own post-breakup blues by moving herself and her wise-mouthed daughter, Sara (Kristen Stewart), into a dream home on the upper West Side. This sought-after "townstone" (part townhouse, part brownstone) is a multistory fortress tricked out with all manner of state-of-the-art security features by its filthy-rich former owner. The pièce de résistance: an impenetrable, steel-reinforced chamber located off one of the bedrooms and designed to serve as a sanctuary in case of home invasion.
Before you can say "Century 21," Meg and Sara's first night under their new roof is interrupted by three prowlers (Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam) who are determined to retrieve a fortune that's hidden on the premises. The women lock themselves in the so-called panic room, whereupon the burglars try to draw them out by busting up every ceiling and molding they can take a heavy instrument to. Out in the audience, our concern for the ladies' safety takes a back seat to wondering what the repairs are going to cost. Not since The "Money Pit" has a movie been so adept at exploiting the deepest anxieties of the American homeowner.
The material is a good match with director David Fincher, who always gets a thrill from doling out extreme punishment to inanimate objects. (Look at what he did to Brad Pitt in "Se7en" and "Fight Club.") But he doesn't restrain himself enough to convey properly what is essentially a small story. Perhaps influenced by critics who have refer-red to his films as "dark," Fincher shoots most of "Panic Room" under such a thick blanket of gloom that we sometimes need a penlight to discern what's going on. There's also too much ostentatious use of the Steadicam, which zooms up and down floors, across the unfurnished rooms and even into a keyhole. If one accepts the film-school premise that cinematography should replicate somebody's point of view -- a character, an observer, even God -- then key scenes in this movie appear to denote the perspective of a moth.
The script's snazzy dialogue establishes a realistic atmosphere that involves us in the unfolding crisis, but the lazy plotting ensures that little of our emotional investment pays off. Writer David Koepp, whose career highlights have seen him working from other people's ideas (from the first two "Jurassic Park" movies to "Mission: Impossible" to upcoming "Spider-Man") embarks on this solo flight equipped with a sharp tongue but a malformed story sense that leads him straight into some distracting lapses in logic. Like the townstone itself, the movie starts out as a pristine property but depreciates into a fixer-upper.