It seems Christian Alvart’s legacy with Hollywood may very well be the best unintentionally funny bee scene since The Wicker Man remake, and he even accomplished it Cage-free! This is a guy who made a pretty good horror/thriller called Antikorper (or Antibodies, for it’s American titling) in his native Germany before venturing State-side. Once here, he directed the purely awful yet not unambitious Pandorum, then took another step down with Case 39, which has languished on the studio’s shelf for the last year or two.
By far the worst part of the film is the performance of Jodelle Ferland, possibly known to audiences for giving another terrible little girl performance in Silent Hill, and who has also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s Tideland and (I’m told) as Bree in those pesky Twilight movies. In fact, she’s worked a lot for a child actor. Her imdb resume is longer than a lot of actors decades older. I’m not sure if she’s ever given a good performance, but certainly not in anything I’ve seen her in. And interestingly enough, it seems to be because she’s very intelligent. Notice, I didn’t write “a very intelligent actor.” Sometimes you get a child actor who’s both, someone like Jodie Foster or Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning, a child who is both extremely smart, and also a naturally intuitive actor. Other times, child actors are very smart people, and have been successful in the business because they are naturally intelligent. Yet they can’t act. And so when they do act, they bring an intelligence years beyond their age to every part, and play all of their roles as though they are 30somethings in a 10 year-old body. That’s because this is their natural personality, and why they’ve been able to excel in show business and be more resilient to its pitfalls than other children their age. For all intents and purposes, they are not really children. The problem is, neither can they act like other normal 10-year-old kids when they’re required too, because they have no idea what that means. And this is precisely what’s wrong with Jodelle Ferland and her role in Case 39.
Let’s backtrack a bit to go over the potential of Case 39. It’s got a great central concept: overworked social worker with a full docket of 38 cases (hence, this latest dumped into her lap being Case 39), so beaten down and inured to the rampant abuse everywhere that she can no longer even see the possibility of non-abusive, innocent parents, responds to a call about a beaten child, and immediately, and seemingly appropriately, villainizes the bizarre and socially-withdrawn mother and father. So far, so good, and the film does a great job of capturing the gritty side of neglect and the average, overworked American employee. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to Zellweger’s character and her environmentally-forced point-of-view. And the hook comes once the girl is taken away and Zellweger returns to the house to find the parents had installed deadbolts on the inside of their bedroom door. I mean, that’s the kind of hook that will send chills down your spine and ignite your left brain with possibilities. Other great things: a supporting cast filled with the likes of pre-Hangover-superstardom Bradley Cooper, Deadwood emeritus cocksuckin’ Ian McShane, and as the little girl’s creepy father, X-Files/Battlestar Galactica/Californication/Harper’s Island/24 vet Callum Keith Rennie. Rennie is one of the best working actors we have today, who can seemingly play anything believably, and who you once begin to notice, will begin to notice everywhere. If Rennie is in it, it’s good tv. Unfortunately, the same can not be yet said of his film roles. But God bless Cooper, McShane, Rennie, and Kerry O’Malley, who plays the little girl’s mother in a performance every bit an equal to Rennie’s father, for going all in and doing legitimate work in this giant shitball sandwich.
Ok, so great thriller/horror concept, check. Great supporting cast, check. Now let’s see where it all went wrong. Stop 1: Renee Zellweger. And to her credit, when the movie really gets bad, her refusal to give up and go down with the sinking ship actually proves a certain level of professionalism and earns her some points. It’s like watching The Ring 2 if Naomi Watts had been able to resist retreating into an acting coma. But the unending plastic surgery that has made her face look like someone’s ass, so that every expression she now wears on it looks like an Eskimo smiling in cynical disbelief, well, it hasn’t helped her competency in any way. Nor does the fact that at some point she decided she wanted to be a really “serious” actress and started only courting and accepting movie parts for the likes of Cold Mountain, and then made Harvey Weinstein go to bat to get her an Academy Award. Sorry, Renee, but the full breadth of your range has never extended much beyond the likes of Jerry Maguire. You are not Meryl Streep. Nor are you Nicole Kidman. If she’d just accepted that, and a lifetime of sweet girlfriend/wife roles, and foregone the surgical knife, she’d have been much better off. Stop 2: Jodelle Ferland. As I’ve said before, the kid is too intelligent for her own good. When you’re acting the part of an innocent child who may or may not be a demon from hell, it’s so much better to just believably play the innocent child side of the part. The creepy demon part is already there on the page; the audience is already going to be led to those questions. If the kid plays an intelligence 20 years beyond the character in almost every scene, it just destroys any possibility that the innocent kid could actually be an innocent kid. Instead, we’re left with a smarmy, all-too-knowing, in-your-face interpretation that ambushes any kind of mood or suspense for over-the-top cheese. Stop 3: the writing and the direction of the last half of the film.
The first half of the film spends enough time with interesting and credible supporting performances from an engaging cast, who give the movie far more than it deserves, and who keep it chugging along on the track of possibility. But about the time Bradley Cooper endures his bathroom bee scene and shatters the glass shower door, that train is track free and rumbling along the desert floor to uncharted vistas. From there the movie finds itself in places that are so ludicruously awful, I almost have to recommend the film as one of those so-bad-it’s-good movies. The number of times that Zellweger’s character definitively decides Ferland is pure evil and needs to kill her, then minutes later flips and decides maybe she can make the adoption thing work after all, are so head-bangingly numerous she might as well be in a supernatural Groundhog Day, yet it’s no part of the film’s narrative, but just incredibly bi-polar writing. The final act of the film, the illogical behavior and character motivation, the bad special effects, and seemingly constantly-eroding budget for set design, will make you stop chewing that mouthful of popcorn in slack-jawed awe and wondrous dismazement. Yes, I just created a word for the description of this movie: dismazement. And now I’m going to create a drinking game for this movie. You can start playing it at the opening credits, you can start playing it when the parents try to cook the little girl in the oven, and you can even wait until the third act and probably still really get your drink on. When you get a weird feeling that a character is going to do something batshit insane or something’s going to happen that’s pretty much the dumbest thing the writers could have possibly written, pick one of the two and then drink if it happens. Usually you will be drinking no matter what you pick.
On some level, I’m sorry that with the release of this film, it’s unlikely Christian Alvart will ever work in Hollywood again. As bad as Pandorum was, it had this wacky potential to it. Even with Case 39, he’s made something truly entertaining, if for all the wrong reasons. And I feel as though he does have some not-unsignificant talent. I’m not sure if it’s just an inability to work within the American studio system, but no one survives unscathed the type of beat-down and nervous dissociation from reality he must have had while completing filming on this movie. If terrible didn’t exist in the English language before now, something so bad it’s beyond bad would now be called Case 39.
1-2 points out of the 3 I’m giving it are a result of that so-bad-it’s-good entertainment value; the rest for its game supporting cast. Hear that sound? That’s the door banging shut as Meg Wood races to the Starplex Cinemas. Go, Meg; this movie was made for you and I anxiously await your review.