Sunday, October 16, 2011

Case 39

"Some cases should never be opened"?  Consider that a warning from this film to not open the DVD case.  That might just be the most accurate movie tagline I have ever seen.  What's so bad about it?  It has star power and makes use of the "creepy kid" plot device.  What makes Case 39 so different from decent horror movies, like The Ring or The Others?  Aside from the lack of an article in the title, I would say quality and silliness.  Let me explain.

Emily (Renée Zellweger) is a social worker.  This tells us two things, right off the bat, given that this is a horror movie.  First, Emily has a good heart and wants to protect the innocent.  Second, she has an underwhelming social life because she is wrapped up in her work.  I'm not making any judgment calls on social workers as a whole, but that is the stereotype in movies for social working main characters.
The crooked smile means she cares for a living
She is overwhelmed with work, but she is making a difference in her thirty-eight cases.  When her boss drops case thirty-nine on her desk (oh...I see what they did there!  Clever!  Boring!), Emily is exasperated, but when she meets with the family of ten year-old Lilith (Jodelle Ferland), she forgets her annoyance.  Lilith's family is weird; the first time she visits their home, the father (noted Cylon Callum Keith Rennie) will only speak to Emily through the mother (Kerry O'Malley), and little Lilith shows the timidness of an abused child.  Playing a hunch, Emily decides to pay an unexpected visit to Lilith's home with her police buddy, Detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane), and times it perfectly; Lilith's parents had duct taped Lilith inside their oven, but Emily and Mike broke in just in time to save her.
"Seven hours at 275.  Baste frequently.  What's so hard to understand?"
The good news is that Emily gets the parents thrown in the crazy house.  They would go to jail, but...well, something about "I tried to bake my child" just sounds less than sane.  Emily takes Lilith to a foster home, but Lilith is clearly uncomfortable.  She wants to live with Emily.  And you know what?  Emily pulls some strings and makes it happen.  Finally, a family for big-hearted Emily!  Life is good!  Well, it's good until bad stuff starts happening all around her.  For whatever reason, everyone Emily cares about seems to either die or kill someone else.  What's that about?  And what does it have to do with little Lilith?  Hint: everything.

That doesn't sound like an awful movie, does it?  Sure, maybe it's a little predictable in general terms, but Case 39 spices things up a bit with demonic possession and hallucinations.
Hallucination, or one too many Jägermeister-'n'-wasp shots?
Technically, this isn't a bad movie.  I wouldn't call Christian Alvart's direction inspired or nuanced, but he does decently well with the special effects.  He doesn't handle actors well, as evidenced by how awful that cast played "scared," but he shoots a pretty competent film.  Like his other 2009 effort, Pandorum, Alvart tries to induce scares without building much of an atmosphere, so the end result is destined to feel hollow.  Thankfully, Alvart doesn't resort to much CGI and does not use darkness to obscure the movie this time.  He still appears to be incapable of conveying genuine human emotion, but at least his movie looks decent enough.
Well, it looks good most of the time

While I wasn't crazy for the acting in Case 39, I don't think that any of the cast did a particularly bad job.  Ian McShane played a good cop and gave a solid (if uninteresting) performance.  Bradley Cooper wasn't exactly charmless as Emily's child psychiatrist colleague/flirtatious friend, but his performance felt a little forced.  When he was shown trying to analyze little Lilith, he came across as someone who talks down to kids, which strikes me as incredibly unlikely in that occupation.  I'm not sure how good Jodelle Ferland was; creepy kids in horror movies usually just have dead eyes or look tortured, and she manages both. 
Despite hitting those standard marks, I thought she was just okay.  That leaves Renée Zellweger with the most interesting character, theoretically.  She is the lead, after all, right?  I'm not a fan of Zellweger usually --- something about her stupid face just irritates me --- but I have seen her do pretty good work in the past.  This movie just doesn't play to her strengths.  The role forces her to appear haggard, stressed, and frightened to a childish degree, none of which flatter her skill set.  It's not that she does a terrible job, so much as she is horribly miscast.  Surprisingly, that's not even the worst casting choice the filmmakers made.  After all, they took one of the more magnetic villains in Hollywood today (McShane) and cast him as a boring good cop.
"Are you sure I'm not supposed to kill her?"

The problems with Case 39 go a lot deeper than the casting, though.  This is just a tepid melodrama, trying to convince audiences that it is really a supernatural thriller.  The first problem is that the creepy kid doesn't do much that is creepy.  Instead of being a normal kid that bad things happen to (The Sixth Sense) or an evil kid doing unexplainable things (The Ring, The Grudge), Lilith appears to be a little bitch who is corteous to adults and does bad things behind their backs (kind of like The Bad Seed).  And what does she do?  She calls people and talks to them on the phone.  Scary.  The similarities in the setup of this premise to any number of other "bad kid" horror flicks makes the payoff particularly underwhelming.  I was hoping that we would see something cool or twisted happen, but Lilith doesn't physically do much of anything.  In fact, Lilith might just be the least frightening child antagonist since Problem Child.  That was a horror movie, right?

And what about that title?  "Case 39?"  Couldn't they have just given this any arbitrary title then, like "Case File 2172011-B: The Movie"?  Hell, even "The Social Worker" would be a better title than "Case 39."  They might as well have called it "Bland Bland Blandblandbland." 

Perhaps what makes Case 39 so bad is the inevitable climax.  I realize that you probably aren't going to watch this movie --- who the hell else would make the same mistake I made? --- but I feel obligated to say SPOILER ALERT: The way that the story progresses, it is apparent that Emily is not going to have a supernatural fix to Lilith's demon possession.  In fact, the most reasonable solution to the Lilith problem seems to have been her parents taping her inside the oven, which made me laugh when I realized it.  That means that Emily will have to either kill Lilith or be killed by her, and since this movie sucks, you know that evil won't win out.  I'm not saying that killing Renée Zellweger would have salvaged the film, but it would have made it watchable.  Instead, we have Emily pulling a Susan Smith to kill her child-demon.  And that's it.  Emily climbs out of the water, where her car (and Lilith locked inside) have sunk to the bottom.  Roll credits.  Is that supposed to be a happy ending?  This woman is going to get arrested and spend the rest of her life in a psych ward, but the film seems to be saying "...and that's the end of that chapter."  Star wipe aaaand...roll credits.  It's not that the ending is surprising, it is just cheap and lazy --- the two worst ways to end a boring and unimaginative supernatural horror movie. 

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