On professional rivalries, Blanchett's banter, and the unexplored corners of Eli Roth's House
The House with a Clock in its Walls Universal Pictures
Director: Eric Kripke, based on the novel by John Bellairs
Screenplay: Owen Vaccaro, Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Kyle MacLachlan
Rated PG / 1 hour, 45 minutes / 2.39:1
September 21, 2018
(out of four)
If there's any lesson to The House with a Clock in its Walls, I suppose it's this: The family that conjures together, stays together.
The alternative, however ... well, let's just say Thanos has nothing on a shellshocked Kyle MacLachlan.
Placing a kid protagonist into a movie in which the most important (and, without doubt, most interesting) stuff has little to nothing to do with him is a curious choice, but that's largely the way House operates. The kid's primary purpose is a symbolic one - the missing piece for two characters who lost their better halves. He did, too, for that matter. Ten-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) just lost his parents in a car crash and has been sent to live with his closest living relative, the eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who lives alone in an ornately decorated, purportedly haunted old house but shares most of his time - and a steady stream of charmingly bitchy repartee - with his neighbor, best friend, and magical co-conspirator Florence (Cate Blanchett). They're wizards, you see.
Well. Technically he is a warlock and she is a witch. But let's not split hairs.
In any case, however important Lewis' presence is to the ultimate goal of Jonathan and Florence becoming whole again, it seems the film would have been a whole lot better if it had been more about those two and less about the boy, who mostly just seems to get in the way. At the very least he doesn't make an already-fraught situation any easier. More than once, I wondered to myself why the kid was around so much when there's so much else to explore. I never got a satisfactory answer. Ultimately Clock is a movie about a dispute between two former creative partners who had a falling-out, with one of them turning to evil and the other trying to fight off that evil. Turns out Jonathan used to have a stage partner, Isaac (MacLachlan), who made a heel turn after his experiences in World War II, died in his lab, but took his newfound malevolence with him beyond the grave.
More importantly, he left a little bit of it behind in the form of a clock he hid somewhere inside the walls of Jonathan's house. What the clock means, or what its purpose is, or where it's located, or how to stop it from ticking ... these are the questions that torment him on a nightly basis. All he knows is, judging from his old partner's temperament in the last days of his life, it can't be good news.
Good news for Isaac comes in the form of that very nephew Jonathan is trying to protect. If anyone's vulnerable to a bit of smoke-and-mirrors manipulation from beyond the grave, it's a 10-year-old orphan who hasn't yet been informed of the vast supernatural possibilities lurking within the hidden places of his new home. And anyway, if Uncle Jonathan were really ready to be a guardian, he never would have done something so foolish as tell his new ward to never, ever, under any circumstances open the secret cabinet that's in plain view and readily accessible. What's Lewis supposed to do - not open up the secret cabinet that's in plain view and readily accessible? How was he supposed to know he would be unleashing his uncle's mortal enemy and an existential threat to civilization itself?
That example is too typical of the film as a whole, with Lewis being convenient for plot purposes but otherwise a bit of a distraction. The movie is built on key relationships; the first and most important is Jonathan and Isaac, the fractured stage duo still hashing things out years after death separated them. Next is Jonathan and Florence, between whom the film gets its most enjoyable moments. A distant third is Lewis' burgeoning rapport with his stranger of an uncle and what we might as well call a surrogate aunt; we know that this is our emotional endgame, because it almost has to be. And yet his very existence is fundamentally irrelevant. He's an intruder in his own movie.
This is about a diabolical professional rivalry that extended beyond the grave and back again. The possibility threatened by Isaac's return is not just an end-of-the-world scenario but a continued hashing-out of differences between two rival warlocks. There's a fun movie in that ... if only this one didn't keep distracting itself with that pedestrian storyline about the new kid at school trying to make friends.
As a whole, the film doesn't seem to know what its strengths are - or if it does, it doesn't rely on them nearly enough. The good-vs-evil magician duel is the most obvious narrative example, but perhaps a more damaging one is the banter between Black's Jonathan and Blanchett's Florence, which could seemingly could carry the whole film but instead gets sprinkled in only in occasional moments of downtime. Seeing the two actors bounce off each other is a delight specifically because their performances styles are so oppositional; Blanchett's deadpan darts are so ruthlessly offhand they practically burrow into the skin before the recipient even has the chance to notice; Black, meanwhile, has that natural performer's flair. He's always aware when he's making a funny. It's a nice, playful, tense dynamic, but unfortunately we get far too little of it.
And then there's the eponymous house, which has enough personality for the both of its two A-listers (and then some). Production designer Jon Hutman has rarely worked on this type of fantasy project - he's mostly specialized in contemporary settings (The Interpreter, The Tourist, various Nancy Meyers films) or more traditional period pieces (Quiz Show, Unbroken) - and I really like what he's done with the house in particular, a bright but dusty maze of funhouse curiosities that never tries to imitate Burton or del Toro or any other modern filmmakers known for the ornate detailing of their fantastical interior worlds. The house is a jungle, a galaxy, a secret garden, a Gothic cathedral all rolled into one. Set decorator Ellen Brill deserves a lot of credit here as well.
But the name that stands out as the most anachronistic is that of director Eli Roth, whose most family-friendly feature effort up to this point was ... I don't know, the one about Keanu Reeves getting assaulted and blackmailed by two naked teenagers? So yeah. In any case, he approaches his first foray into PG fantasy with earnestness and care, but without much vision. I kinda wish his fascination with the macabre had gone further; there's more than enough to play with in that house, and he seems too timid to do much exploring.