Simon Pegg's committed performance can't salvage the mismatched pieces in 'A Fantastic Fear of Everything'
A Fantastic Fear of Everything Indomina Releasing
Director: Crispian Mills
Screenplay: Crispian Mills
Starring: Simon Pegg, Clare Higgins, Paul Freeman, Alan Drake and Amara Karan
Rated R / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
This is a curious one. A Fantastic Fear of Everything has strong production values, nice visuals, terrific acting, and strange and amusing ideas. And yet it doesn't work. It's an oddly ineffectual piece, funny when you think about it but not funny at all when you're actually watching it. If that makes sense.
Not that it's intended as an entirely humorous experience. It's more of a strange and ambitious hybrid of horror, absurd comedy, and earnest, semi-tragic character portrait, only it never finds its footing in any of those categories. As is so often the case, it ultimately comes down to tone, with director Crispian Mills failing to ever command it, allowing the story to spin around wildly (and even somewhat entertainingly, in a detached way) without ever figuring itself out.
The movie, which was made two or three years ago but has only just now been released stateside, is about a writer named Jack (played with absolute commitment and abandon by Simon Pegg) who, in researching the history of killers and deviants (particularly of the Victorian era), has warped his mind into a paranoid bundle of nerves, and is perpetually convinced that someone is just around the corner waiting to kill him.
What does work about the film is the way Mills presents Jack's frenetic state of mind in purely cinematic terms, as if his fears have been shaped and defined by horror movies. The tilted angles, shadowy hallways, the vaguely sinister presence hovering just outside the frame - all of his paranoia represented by time-tested and genre-specific visual cues.
To a certain extent, Jack's behavior boils down to garden-variety agoraphobia - his phone keeps ringing but he rarely picks up; he refuses to open the front door even when it's just children collecting money for charity - but viewed through the lens of someone who interprets everything he sees and hears as if he's in a slasher flick. What's interesting about that aspect of the premise is how it seems his irrational fear of serial killers and the like (brought on by his research into the subject) is largely used as justification for the kind of behavior that he probably would have been exhibiting anyway, at least to a certain degree.
Jack is something of an accidental success who considers himself a failure, having made it big with a picture book, Harold the Hedgehog, he wrote years earlier. He never intended to be a writer of children's literature, which is part of the reason why he's thrust himself into the true-crime racket. His obsessiveness and neuroses also tore apart his marriage, and these days he lives alone in a poorly lit flat, rarely making an excursion outside into the real world unless he really has to.
Fantastic Fear takes place over the course of one day, during which he will have to leave the house twice. Once to meet his agent (Clare Higgins), who seems entirely unfazed by his odd behavior; and again later that evening to (begrudgingly) meet with a television executive who's interested in producing a true-crime series Jack has been working on. The only hiccup in that second part is that he has no clean clothes to wear, forcing him to stop by the laundromat launderette first so he can make himself presentable.
That scenario takes up the entire second half of the film, which amounts to an extended descent into his damaged psyche stemming from deep-seated abandonment issues. The big narrative wrinkle is that he has a deep and abiding fear of launderettes, going all the way back to childhood. This is the movie's wackiest narrative leap - and just to be clear, I have never used the word "wacky" as a compliment.
Jack has no clean clothes, but the entirety of his laundry is a few items in a small trash bag. (The film avoids the issue because of its limited narrative window, but one wonders how he has ever gotten his clothes cleaned before this particular night.) He does all he can to avoid the trip, attempting to wash and dry his clothes in the comfort of his own flat. This does not go well, and - with the help of his shrink, Dr. Friedkin (Paul Freeman, and I certainly hope that name is a reference to the filmmaker) - finally psyches himself up for the big trip to the laundry, armed with a pocketful of coins.
I mentioned the problematic tone earlier, an issue that gets more and more prominent the more twisted things get. There's an elaborate sense of farce to the film's events, coupled with a deep ironic undercurrent, and those two temperaments strike an uneasy and generally unsuccessful balance. The conflicting attitudes make the whole thing increasingly unlikeable as it goes along (which is a tough task to pull off for a film with the eminently likeable Simon Pegg at its center).
But Mills, both in the way he writes certain scenes and in his inability to find the proper mood behind the camera, does Pegg and this character something of a disservice. Jack is fundamentally a bright guy who's tragically wrapped himself into a giant psychological knot. But the film too often presents him not as a neurotic (who we can laugh with, and at) but as an idiot, one who only gets more and more frustrating to deal with. Fantastic Fear blends various forms of comedy and drama, but ultimately I think it's the element of farce that brings it crumbling down, preventing the various other stylistic notes from coming to life.