For us high-fallutin’ denizens of Concordia University, school has started up again, and we of the Mel Hoppenheim school of cinema are no exception. I myself write this from the sofa of Cafe X, the trendy cafe in the VA building, the drafty, graffiti-laden box where Concordia shoves all the art students, far away from the gleaming spires of the Business School, where the real money’s made. It’s been a stressful week, full of long waits in the bookstore, so last night I decided to unwind with an older Simon Pegg film about a struggling writer with anxiety issues, because apparently I like my relaxation to hit closer to home than that meteor that hit last November.
The film, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, definitely served as an antidote to the high-minded, classical fare I’ve been watching in my first week of classes. A very odd and very very flawed film where Pegg plays Jack, a writer plagued by phobias and neuroses, and his seemingly random series of adventures over the course of an evening.
And random does seem to be the buzz word, and I don’t mean in a good way like in a good game of Cards Against Humanity. The film, like Jack himself, seems listless and unfocused and can’t quite settle on what it wants to be.
The first half hour or so seems like Pegg’s one man show, with him wandering about a suspiciously large flat narrating to himself in dialogue like someone who reads too much Douglas Adams, or speaking aloud in a way people only do in the movies or mental asylums. The action then moves to a laundromat, the focal point of Jack’s fears, and transforms into a comedy of errors, with Jack’s soiled underwear making unscheduled flights through the air while he desperately tries to conceal the carving knife he’s glued into his hand.
Things wind up with Pegg and co-star Amara Karan tied up in the basement of a serial killer who enters the room to the strains of The Final Countdown. The tone of the thing seems wonky, jutting back and forth with wild abandon between almost Python-esque chicanery and randomness and darker, more black comedy, with comedic non-sequiters popping up the whole way. Anything can happen at any moment, from stop-motion animated sequences, comically overzealous police officers and random rap numbers coming in out of nowhere, which makes them more bewildering than funny.
Which is a shame, really, because there is a lot of creativity and flare on display. The movie is definitely striking visually, the sets and costumes have a very simplistic yet exaggerated feel, and the colors have all seemingly been enhanced and brightened, giving the film an appropriately cartoonish look. The effects and animated sequences, for all their odd out-of-placeness, are fun to watch and very well executed, and Pegg’s performance is another notch in his already well-worn belt of excellent comedic performances.
The film is a first for directors Crispian Mills and Chris Hopwell and while they have that very “first director” problem of a lack of restraint, there’s also clearly a lot of skill at work. At one point it’s revealed that half of Jack’s hair had been seared off in an earlier scene, and I hadn’t even noticed that he’d been shot almost entirely from one side for like fifteen minutes to conceal this. Of course, this could just as easily mean I’m an unobservant knob.
The film is also genuinely funny at times, something that seems far more uncommon than it should be these days. Though most of the comedy comes from Pegg’s performance than any of the writing, which is too inconsistent to build the kind of delicate house of cards that is a finely crafted comedic scene.
For all the film’s virtues, and it does have them, make no mistake, things keep coming back to this lack of direction problem. It doesn’t feel like there’s a logical progression at work, an A to B to C path, something especially necessary in a film purporting to be about a character growing and evolving. There’s no sense at the end that we’ve been on a journey with Jack, but rather a series of unconnected events, a ramble down a path on which we’re occasionally assailed by a serial killer hair-metal enthusiast with no rhyme or reason to much of anything.
Nothing about it feels organic or natural, Jack’s enthusiasm for rap music doesn’t feel like an integral part of his character, just an excuse to have Simon Pegg dance comedically to some Ice Cube. A well timed pie to the face, appropriately set up and impeccably timed, is funny. A totally random pie to the face, seemingly out of the blue, is merely amusing, something the writers/directors of A Fantastic Fear of Everything seem largely unaware of.
And while an amusing film is entertaining to watch, so is an internet video of a cat that’s learned to flush the toilet. Sure, you’ll get some chuckles, but it isn’t something you’ll re-watch and repeatedly marvel at its cleverness like Pegg’s breakout performances in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
With some refinement and practice, I do have confidence that there’s something to be found in the film’s masterminds, Mills and Hopwell. But A Fantastic Fear of Everything very much feels like a film by a pair of filmmakers still getting the hang of the finer points of comedy.
The potential is there, but remains unrealized, though I’d gladly give them a second chance. There’s enough cleverness and craft on display to earn them that, just not enough to give this one a passing grade.