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Willard (2003)

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 03/17/03 16:59:05

"Crispin Glover shows he can still kick with his eccentricities"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I remember one year I almost bought my girlfriend a pet rat for Christmas. She has a fondness for them, thanks mostly to the Harry Potter series and Ron Weasley’s pet rat Scabbers. Rats have gotten a bad rap. Sure, they can be foul, hateful little scavengers, but they don’t lack intelligence and they can even be sort of cute sometimes. Pet stores do carry rats in stock, but they can be a bit of a hassle to look after. I’m not sure the new movie “Willard” will make the best case for those Pro-Rats out there, but with the casting of Crispin Glover, himself a vocal rat activist (He wrote a book called “Ratcatching”), it can’t be all bad. After all, why would the eccentric Glover agree to star in a movie that took an Anti-Rat stance?

“Willard” gets by mostly because of Glover, one of the most interesting characters in his own right when just being himself. I’m sure many of us can remember where we were when we first saw him make an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. With his shoulder-length thick haircut, horn-rimmed glasses and dime-store bellbottoms with 7” high platform shoes, Glover decided he didn’t want to talk about his new movie “River’s Edge.” This frantically jittery character wanted to arm-wrestle and show off his physique. Andy Kaufman would have been proud.

Only someone with Glover’s reputation for eccentricity could pull off the role of Willard Stiles, a lonely office worker who lives with his ailing, hideous mother. His boss, Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey), who took the company over from Willard’s deceased father, wants to fire Willard, but because of Willard’s legacy with the company, he can’t. Willard doesn’t have much interest in the job, but he can’t bring himself to leave.

One night, when setting rattraps in the basement, per his mother’s orders, Willard comes face-to-face with the white rat that started the fuss. Willard saves the rat from being stuck permanently to a sheet of glue and instantly takes a liking to him. He names the rat Socrates. This friendship invites other rats in. Soon, Willard has a Trouble-With-Tribbles situation on his hands, but one in which he is in complete control. When he sees the destruction with which these rats seem capable, he can’t help but encourage them to destroy more. His repeated orders, “Tear it,” will no doubt be the movie’s biggest catch phrase. Soon, Willard proclaims himself not the Rat Master, but rather, The Boss.

Soon, a dynamic occurs between Willard and a darker, more sinister rat, Ben, and soon the two battle it out to will the other rats into heeding their orders. It becomes a series of morality plays concerning loyalty that results in a body count.

Glen Morgan directed “Willard,” but if you replaced his name with Tim Burton’s, you wouldn’t know the difference. Starting with the opening credit sequence to the Danny Elfman-esque score (the score is really by Shirley Walker), Morgan’s version of “Willard” has a wonderful visual flair that seems reminiscent of Burton’s work. That is not to say that “Willard” looks derivative. It simply has the right sensibilities. It has the loner who lives in a spooky house, cartoonish camera angles and a love for the out-of-the-ordinary. Morgan also knows exactly to shoot Ben to make him look like a character and not just a rodent.

Glover lies at the center of the movie and I found it quite refreshing to have him in a leading role. He makes rather odd acting choices that for some reason bring to mind Stan Laurel. It may be the boyish-ness of his character suddenly given to fits of rage when he learns that he must try and sell his mother’s house. Glover chooses to scream every line like an infant, a choice I’m not sure too many actors would make. He has a good supporting cast to work off of as well, including R Lee Ermey whom, it comes as no surprise, makes a good corporate villain. Jackie Burroughs, who plays his mother, looks as though she had been born into that dirty, decrepit old house as a piece of the furniture. In other words, she looks great in a hideous sort of way, and she plays it just as well.

As a cat person, I have to say this movie goes overboard in one sequence in which a cat gets locked in a house with all the rats. I found it amusing and silly, but only up to a point where I don’t think Morgan made the right choice. For if we are to walk out of “Willard” with a better understanding and appreciation of rats, wouldn’t it be a wise method to let all the other animals in the movie live? Think I’m making too much of it? Okay, pretend it’s a dog in that scene or your animal of choice. It’s just not a very funny punchline to me, although I am all in favor of seeing the cat scared out of its wits for the remainder of the movie.

I must say I have never seen the original “Willard.” It’s on my list of movies to see before I die (though at this point, not near the top). I have not had an easy time trying to locate a copy for rent. I am actually far more interested in locating a copy of Crispin Glover’s book “Ratcatching.” As for the “Willard” re-make, I found it to be quite amusing, fun to watch and wonderfully acted. I also have a new fondness for the song “Ben,” but not the Michael Jackson version (I’ll give you three guesses as to who sings the new version). I’m not sure the movie will make you think twice about rats, but I don’t think you’ll be rushing out to buy one as a pet for yourself or a loved one anytime soon. Unless, of course, they could guarantee you a good rat like Socrates.

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