OCTOBER 23, 2009
John C. Reilly is one of those guys who I will watch in anything. Bad movies are made OK due to his presence, and good movies are even better as soon as he first appears. So it's not too surprising that he is the best thing about Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Apprentice, a well meaning and sorta fun movie that is weighed down by a wealth of source material, and a somewhat arrogant approach to the script that more or less depends on a sequel that we might not ever get.
Apparently based on the first few books of a 12 part series, there is simply so much stuff to set up for this particular mythology, I often felt like I was watching an extended pilot for a TV series instead of what should be a fairly self-contained film. Obviously a franchise is hoped for, but there is a way to do it where you won't feel like you're greatly missing out should a sequel or two never come to pass. If you watch New Hope, you see a great example of how to start off a mythology-heavy franchise: there's a traditional structure, a big battle at the end, and while there are still a few questions, it's still a pretty complete story. Freak is more like Empire, where it ends on a giant cliffhanger, one that promises a more exciting followup to boot. The difference is, Empire was a sequel to a hugely successful film, so there was no doubt that George Lucas would get to tell the rest of his story. Cirque Du Freak, on the other hand, is a new franchise that has to face off against other horror contenders (Paranormal Activity and Saw VI), as well as other young adult literary fare (Where The Wild Things Are).
The backstory of the movie is about a brewing war between two vampire types; the Freaks and the "Vampanese", who are far more villainous. Throughout the film we are told about how the war seems imminent, and at the end of the film it has seemingly begun. OK, great - but what if part 2 doesn't happen? The movie is all foreplay, with only a slight/short battle between Reilly and his villainous counterpart, Murlaugh (played by Ray Stevenson) for a climax, as well as a brief, largely incomprehensible skirmish between the film's tragic two best friends.
And that's the other problem with the movie - you get Reilly, Salma Hayek (even with a beard - still one of the most beautiful women in the world), Willem Dafoe, and other dependable performers, but our teenage leads are as dull as dirt. I'm not sure in what world Josh Hutcherson qualifies as a gifted young actor, but in the handful of movies I've seen him in, he just annoys and never displays any range, which is kind of a problem when his character has the film's biggest arc (from hero's best friend to his biggest rival). I actually thought he was just pretending to be bad in the film's 2nd half, because he was so unconvincing as a rebellious youth who turned to the dark side. Christ, he makes Hayden Christensen look good.
The other guy (Chris Massoglia, the titular assistant) I've never seen before, but based on his work here I won't be rushing out for his other movies. Like Hutcherson, I never got the sense of his character's plight (becoming a half-vampire, missing his family, etc). He's just THERE, saying lines and running around a bit when the script requires him to. Come on guys, of all the actors in the world, were these two really the best you could do?
But it might not be their fault. The film either has the worst editor of all time*, or was neutered for whatever reason. Scenes often shift from one to the next without any sort of idea of how much time has passed between them, and there are more than a couple spots in the film where a segment was clearly excised. For example, the bad guys show up in Massoglia's tent, which he shares with Patrick Fugit (who comes a close 2nd to Reilly in terms of bringing the movie to life). They just enter, and then there's a jarring cut to another area of the Cirque. A few minutes later, Massoglia is back in his tent with Fugit, who has a bandage on his head. Clearly he was attacked, but the jarring edits seem to suggest such a scene was filmed and then removed. And it's a remarkably tame movie; I would have guessed it was PG had I not seen the poster which proudly announced its PG-13 rating for "sequences of intense supernatural violence and action and disturbing images" (where?). Even Twilight had more on-screen action.
And while Paul Weitz did great work with American Pie and About A Boy (one of the most underrated films of the decade), he doesn't seem cut out for this sort of material. At times he seems to be aping Peter Jackson's penchant for off-kilter closeups, and there are some weird zooms and shakicam during the few fight scenes that just distract. All it did was continuously make me wonder if the film would have been better had they gotten someone like Guillermo Del Toro or Alfonso Cauron (he who made the best Harry Potter film) to call the shots.
All that said, it's hardly a dull affair. The production design and costumes for the various freaks are pure eye candy, and again, Reilly is wonderful as the awesomely-named Larten Crepsley. His hilariously dry response to Hutcherson's request to become a vampire is worth the price of admission alone, and his all-too-brief scenes with Salma Hayek are charming and sweet. Also, the opening title sequence is a marvel onto itself - if you're watching this on DVD, do NOT skip over it.
I hope the film does well. Not because it's particularly great, but because I sense the creative team was burdened with telling an origin story that wasn't as interesting as what follows, and I would like to see these folks in an adventure that can skip the introductions and just get on with it. And considering the number of known co-stars who aren't given anything to do in this story (Orlando Jones, Frankie Faison, and Jane Krakowski - who I don't even think has a single line - chief among them), it would almost be a waste to bring them onboard and never let them shine.
What say you?
*Strangely enough, the editor is one Leslie Jones, who also cut The Thin Red Line, a film I kept thinking of when I would see actors like Krakowski appear in the background of scenes and not do anything, which is what happened to several of the actors in Line (due to the film being cut from 6 hrs to 3). Adrien Brody, for example, was initially the lead role, but his performance was whittled down to a handful of largely non-speaking shots.