A Clockwork Lemon: What hath Roth wrought?
By: Matt Brunson
On the literary timeline, the source material for the new kid-flick The House with a Clock in Its Walls (one and a half stars out of four) existed long before Harry Potter received a letter offering him a chance to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But on the cinematic timeline, this adaptation of John Bellairs’ 1973 children’s novel arrives long after the magic has largely dissipated from such enterprises. While the celluloid version of J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offered enough invention and energy to bode well for the upcoming follow-up, everything in Clock moves at the pace of, well, a clock winding down. It’s both too-little-too-late and been-there-done-that.
Set in 1955, the movie centers on Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a young boy who’s sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) after his parents are killed in a car crash. Jonathan’s home is a cluttered mansion once owned by the late Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), an evil warlock who left a ticking clock hidden somewhere on the premises. Jonathan, who’s also revealed to be a warlock (albeit a good one), knows that the clock represents something malevolent, so he and Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), his next-door neighbor and fellow sorcerer, spend much of their time frantically searching for it. Wowed by everything he’s witnessing, Lewis decides that he would like to become a warlock as well.
Best known for Cabin Fever and Hostel, Eli Roth has spent 2018 trying to reinvent himself as a filmmaker who can tackle other genres in addition to horror. He started the year with the needless Death Wish remake and now returns with a PG-rated family film that’s somehow even more dreary and repetitive than that R-rated effort. For a movie about fantastic beasts and where to find them, The House with a Clock in Its Walls offers little in the way of wonder and imagination. The incessant CGI maintains a constant chokehold on most other aspects of the film as if Roth felt that today’s kids can only respond to a nonstop barrage of sound and fury and busy effects. The doll army is admittedly creepy — one can easily picture them as Pennywise’s minions — but a little of the canine-like chair, the belching pumpkins, and the perpetually defecating topiary griffin go a long way. Even the sight of Black’s head on an infant’s body runs a distant second to the more accomplished trick of placing Ryan Reynolds’ noggin on an itty bitty body in the recent Deadpool 2.
After Goosebumps, Black doubtless seemed like a sound choice for this project, and he’s perfectly suited for his role as a voluble man whose surface cheeriness masks his inner frustrations and fears. But Blanchett never quite comes into her own in what’s ultimately a rather blasé role, and while the idea of having Black and Blanchett constantly hurling affectionate insults at each other sounds delightful, their barbs rarely extend beyond tiresome variations of “You’re ugly” and “You’re fat.”
Clearly, Universal Pictures and Roth are trying to pay homage to the Amblin films made by Steven Spielberg and cohorts back in the 1980s — the studio’s press release even states that the film is “in the tradition of Amblin classics where fantastical events occur in the most unexpected places.” But if this soulless slog is any indication of what to expect from future Amblin wannabes, then we’re all in trouble, as it isn’t Back to the Future as much as it’s bleak for the future.
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Life Itself (two stars out of four) is the sort of sprawling, multigenerational saga meant to make audiences laugh, cry, and nod approvingly at moments they might recognize from their own roller coaster lives. Unfortunately, a deep sigh and a dismissive shrug will be all that many folks will be able to muster.
The word out of the Toronto Film Festival was that this was a disaster on the order of the Hindenburg or the Titanic, and most of the reviews thus far have supported that narrative. That strikes me as overkill — if nothing else, Fogelman has at least attempted to make something personal and intimate, a welcome respite from such common and mechanical entertainment as The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It’s just a shame his reach exceeds his grasp.
Broken up into chapters, the film initially follows Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac) as he explains to a psychiatrist (Annette Bening) how the departure of his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) has totally destroyed him. Later chapters deal with a wealthy landowner (Antonio Banderas) in Spain, the loving couple who live on his property (Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta), and, back in the U.S., a surly teenager (Olivia Cooke) dealing with the tragedies that life has constantly shoved in her face.
The thrust of the film is how the literary device of the “unreliable narrator” applies since life is unreliable because it always throws us curveballs every step of the way. It’s a shame Fogelman didn’t apply this theory to the actual crafting of his screenplay since it’s never less than an absolute certainty that all the pieces of the film will snap neatly — and predictably, and sometimes ridiculously — into place by the final fade-out.
On the plus side, the performances are exemplary, particularly those from Isaac and Costa. One’s mileage will vary, however, on Fogelman’s insistence on using pop-culture references to an excessive degree. Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind receives most of the lip service, but there are also copious nods to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. There’s even a recreation of the latter’s adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart scene — unfortunately, it’s not potent enough to bring the rest of the film back to life.