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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
November 2009

One and done

'Cirque du Freak' dies a quick and painless cinematic death

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
Universal Pictures
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenplay: Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland
Starring: John C. Reilly, Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson, Michael Cerveris, Jessica Carlson, Patrick Fugit, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe and Salma Hayek
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 49 minutes
(out of four)

With Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, director Paul Weitz has done what his brother Chris accomplished just two years ago - make sure that a popular book franchise dies a cinematic death after just one movie.

Surely the studios had visions of beloved, blockbuster franchises dancing in their heads when they commissioned Chris to take on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, which was both a critical and commercial failure. (Though, it should be noted, it did contain the most hilarious unintentional sexual innuendo in recent memory. But I digress.)

Now, Paul has taken on the first - and last - attempt at adapting Darren Shan's 12-book series, The Saga of Darren Shan, with similarly unimpressive results. No doubt Universal was hoping for a vampire franchise to call their own - if not a direct rival to Summit Entertainment's Twilight juggernaut (whose second entry, ironically, is directed by Chris Weitz), then at least a spunky little brother.

But Cirque du Freak is doomed to slip into oblivion, if it hasn't already. This is one of those movies that shows all the signs of tampering at the expense of artistic integrity - a slew of recognizable actors who make little to no narrative impact but presumably "sell tickets," a story watered down to its bullet points and pushed along at an economical 100 minutes or so, discount-store CGI, etc.

On the plus side, Salma Hayek is in the film, so it has two things going for it right there. But as a whole, The Vampire's Assistant is, simply, a poor example of basic storytelling. We're introduced to two characters - 16-year-olds Darren (Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson), who are not only BFFs but polar opposites. Darren is the Good Son and Steve is the Bad Influence - and by "bad," I mean he skips an occasional class to throw rocks on the roof, and wears gel in his hair. (Ack! Lock your doors! Hide your children!)

One day they get invited to a traveling freak show and unwittingly become involved in an ongoing feud between vampires (who do not kill humans) and the vampanese (who do).

Steve, who has always had an obsession with vampires, asks the Cirque's de facto alpha dog, a 200-year-old vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) if he can become a vampire himself, but he is turned down - though Darren has the opposite fate, much to Steve's chagrin. Darren gets to become a vampire and not him? Needless to say, this Bad Kid will not take such a slight lying down.

You can see where this all is going. While Darren is in league with Crepsley, Steve joins forces with Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), the odious puppetmaster of the pending feud between the vampires and vampanese. The problem is that the film's storytelling approach relies solely on mechanical efficiency. Getting from one point to the next. And so the movie was doomed from the get-go.

Especially in fantasies and other stylized realities, half the point should be to experience the world that has been created for us. In Cirque du Freak, we see plenty, but we don't experience any of it.

It doesn't help that we have a complete void at the center of the story. Our angsty teenager-turned-vampire protagonist is played by newcomer Chris Massoglia, who might as well be playing the Invisible Man for all the screen presence and expressiveness he has. Then there's Hutcherson, who was promising in Zathura and Bridge to Terabithia, but in a role that requires a nasty edge, he offers nothing.

The cast is rounded out by a slew of recognizable performers like Reilly, Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Ken Watanabe, Orlando Jones and Jane Krakowski - none of whom, with the exception of Reilly, are given enough screen time or character development to have any impact. Then again, nothing in this movie does.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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