Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 15, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
John C. Reilly as a vampire? I thought: How can that not be funny? And it is funny, in a gentler, more unassuming way than you might expect from a movie by screenwriters Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland. They've collectively given us dark and brooding (Helgeland's The Order and Mystic River) or sharp and satirical (Weitz's American Dreamz and About a Boy), but never anything so modest in scope and ambition as this inoffensive and subsequently bland fantasy.
Weitz and Helgeland — Weitz also directs — are working from a series of British young adult novels known as The Saga of Darren Shan, the author of which, somewhat disturbingly, is also known as Darren Shan, which smacks uncomfortably of Mary Sue-ism. And, indeed, there's more than a hint of juvenile wishful thinking to the tale here: Wouldn't it be, like, super-cool if you could get away from boring ol' school and boring ol' adolescence by becoming a vampire and running away to join a freak show?
Who wouldn't love that? Darren Shan (newcomer Chris Massoglia, who sounds like Anton Yelchin and looks like a young, brunet Richard Thomas) sneaks out one night, when he's supposed to be grounded, to see a traveling freak show with his best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson). It doesn't go as well as an evening's entertainment should.
Now, Steve is pissed at Darren, because he totally wanted to be a vampire, and Darren is undead, which he only agreed to in order to save Steve from ... well, the details don't really matter. What matters is that poor Darren has even less control over his life than 11-year-old Harry Potter did: He just gets buffeted around a world that teases us with hints of things wittier and wiser and more intriguing than we ever get to really see.
Darren goes to work as, quite literally, the assistant to Reilly's 200-year-old vampire, Larten Crepsley, in that traveling freak show, which is full of what could potentially be wickedly fun characters. For example, there's Patrick Fugit's wannabe rocker/snake boy, Salma Hayek's psychic lady, and Jane Krakowski's mutant chick, who can grow back her arms after the Wolfman eats them for a snack. Darren's teenage woes have got nothing on them, but we're stuck listening to him whine. He doesn't even seem all that engrossed in the strange new world he finds himself in. At least Harry Potter knew to take advantage of his phenomenal luck in finding himself removed from Mundania forever.
It all feels very small and surprisingly indifferent to its own potential magic, like the pilot for a TV series that might find its groove in its second season but isn't anywhere near there yet. Willem Dafoe, for instance, makes a small appearance as a vampire comrade of Crepsley's and then disappears, leaving us wondering why he was even there in the first place; and the hints of strife between Crepsley's kind of vampire, who don't kill humans, and the "Vampaneze," who do, is barely broached.
That kind of cheating might work for a TV pilot, but not in a film, not even the first in a hoped-for franchise. If I'm not captivated now — and I'm not — I'm certainly not gonna wait around for two years in the hopes that I'll get caught up in a sequel.