by Mel Valentin
Here a franchise, there a franchise, everywhere a (potential) franchise. Directed by Paul “not Chris” Weitz ("American Dreamz," "About a Boy," "American Pie") from an adaptation co-written by Brian Helgeland ("The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," "Man on Fire,' "Mystic River," "Payback," "Conspiracy Theory") of Darren Shan’s first thee novels in his 12-book series, "Saga of Darren Shan," for young adults, "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" is the latest attempt by a Hollywood studio, this time Universal Pictures, to kick-start a fantasy film franchise. It won’t. A muddled, convoluted genre mash-up, "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" isn’t likely (far from likely, actually) to make enough bank at the box office for Universal to greenlight a sequel, let alone a franchise.Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant revolves around Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia), a bland, unadventurous 16-year old high school student. He’s everything his parents (Don McManus and Colleen Camp) could possibly want in a teenage son: he follows rules, does well in school (a top-flight college seems a logical next step), and even gets along with his younger sister, Annie (Morgan Saylor) (no sibling rivalry there). Darren’s exceptionally unexceptional, with the possible exception of an interest in spiders and an unlikely friendship with a longtime friend-turned-troublemaker (and pariah) Steve (Josh Hutcherson). It’s Steve who pushes Darren to break the occasional rule, but when Darren does, school authorities catch him, forcing him to put his friendship with Steve on temporary hiatus, at least superficially.
"Here a franchise, there a franchise, everywhere a (potential) franchise."
When a flyer for a traveling circus-freak show magically drops into their hands, it’s a temptation neither Darren nor Steve can resist. Sneaking out at night, Darren and Steve discover the circus-freak show is everything they imagined (and more). The ringleader, the appropriately named Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe), introduces the various acts, including Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones), a hunger artist with a wasp-thin waist, Rhamus Twobellies (Frankie Faison), whose name tells you everything you need to know about him, Evra the Snake Boy (Patrick Fugit), who, despite his green, scaly skin, wants to play in an indie-rock band, Madame Truska (Salma Hayek), a bearded lady gifted with second sight, and Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), an old-school flamboyant performer (as in 19th-century old-school), whose act involves a super-smart, blue-and-red (as in Spider-Man blue-and-red) spider, Madam Octa.
After the show, Darren a newly reckless learns the consequences of following his impulses. He’s left with a choice: save Steve and become half-vampire assistant to Crepsley, a centuries-old vampire or let Steve die (and return to his boring life). He chooses the life of a vampire assistant, but gets more than bargained for, including a romance with Rebecca (Jessica Carlson), a circus worker, and the attentions of the corpulent Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), a trickster, Loki-like figure who wants to pit the vampire clan, who refuse to kill to feed (but feed nonetheless) and the vampaneze, who kill their human prey. Mr. Tiny wants to break the uneasy truce between the two sides and usher in the apocalypse, with one vampaneze, Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson), Crepsley’s mortal enemy, as his right-hand man and Darren caught in the muddled middle.
Unequal parts coming-of-age, comedy, fantasy, horror, action, and thriller, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant tries to be all things to all moviegoers, but instead ends up as an unoriginal, derivative fantasy mash-up, borrowing conspicuously from the Harry Potter franchise, His Dark Materials, Underworld, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Fright Night, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dracula (of course), and Freaks, while adding nothing new or interesting to an overcrowded sub-genre. True Blood just completed a second season on HBO. Another teen-oriented supernatural drama, The Vampire Diaries, continues to air on the CW, while The Twilight Saga: New Moon (directed by Paul’s brother, Chris) is only weeks away from making tween girls swoon all over again.
And while John C. Reilly chews an appropriate amount of scenery as Larten Crepsley, a centuries-old vampire with a generous nature (he’s only superficially cynical), Chris Massoglia gives an uneven, ultimately underwhelming performance as Darren. Massoglia’s blandness initially fits the pre- Crepsley Darren. He's a suburban automaton, content to follow his parents' guidance and direction in every facet of his life. They have a future planned out for him and it looks a lot like their past and present as married, middle-class suburbanites, but once he become’s Crepsley’s assistant, Massoglia needs to show some minor emotional range, but doesn’t (or simply can’t).Massoglia’s performance is another, possibly fatal, weak link in a potential franchise dependent on the younger cast to draw in the teen demographic with modestly persuasive performances (even the more experienced Hutcherson stumbles as Steve). Other, better known, actors appear in either minor roles (e.g., Ken Watanabe, Selma Hayek, Willem Dafoe) or in walk-on roles (e.g., Orlando Jones, Jane Krakowski), but they’re wasted in underwritten, throwaway roles. Performances aside, "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" ultimately never jells into a coherent whole, meandering through the obligatory world building (via exposition-heavy scenes) necessary to set up a franchise.
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originally posted: 10/23/09 19:50:48