Problem with Fear, A

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 06/18/04 10:16:09

"Low budget sci-fi done right... most of the time."
3 stars (Average)

Gary Burns is one of those guys that film festivals love. His films are low budget, they have humor, and they've got a little style to boot. A Problem With Fear is perhaps his most mainstream film to date, though it still has an abundance of indie cred, and even a little sci-fi edge. Problem is, Burns can't put a leash on his story, and as a result it gets away from him and spoils what would have otherwise been one of the great indie comedy discoveries of the year.

Laurie (Paulo Costanzo) is scared of everything. He has what Hunter S. Thompson would call The Fear. Escalators, open spaces, crossing the street, germs, Laurie has a phobia for whatever you've got going, which all makes things very difficult seeing as he has to take public transport to work each morning, to earn a wage at a job located in a massive shopping mall.

See, Laurie works at a newsstand with a dotty weirdo fashioned-obsessed chick named Dot (Emily Hampshire), and when the two of them aren't closing the shop early because Laurie's freaking out, Dot is wandering the mall asking passing strangers to take her vox pop fashion quiz. This, by itself, would be grounds for an interesting oddball comedy. But when Laurie's fears begin to take root and being happening to others around him, a fear storm grips the city and it looks like it's down to Laurie to either come to terms with his fears, or watch those around him perish in car wrecks, escalator catastrophes and revolving door incidents.

Good premise, right? Well, kinda. The problem here is what links all of these people and happenings together. Or rather, what doesn't link them.

A side story involving Laurie's sister (Camille Sullivan) taking a job at a Robocop-like global security firm which sells security bracelets to consumers that warn them when danger is ahead, tries to put some sort of background to the fear storm, but only succeeds in making the plotline hard to follow and, ultimately, skewed far from reality. The deal is that Laurie's sister's employers have accidentally let a virus-like program loose in their computers which somehow is making fear become a reality, and since everyone is wearing their security bracelets, the virus spreads to everyone.

But the question is, how?

A Problem With Fear wants you to not think too hard about that and instead consider the political message behind the story - that large corporations are stoking our fears and holding our hands, for a fee, while they protect us from the evils that they essentially create. And that's fine, only if that's your message, then you have to link the company to the results of the company's actions a little better than "just go with it, people."

Behind the message and the mess, Costanzo and Hampshire are just fantastic. As the romantic/dramatic/comedic lead, Costanzo is the perfect everyman and sells his phobias fairly well. But it's Hampshire, in what should be (if formulas are followed) a weak sidebar role, who steals the show as a bizarre, ditzy 10-year-old in a 25-year-old body. she deserves a film all to her own and, quite frankly, I found myself actually annoyed whenever she was shoved aside so the actual story could be progressed.

A Problem With Fear is very funny, and its low budget approach to sci-fi is one that is strangely compelling. There are effects, but not the kind that destroy New York (in fact, this film is set in Calgary for the purposes of appeasing Canadian film funding bodies). Mostly, it's just a well constructed parallel universe that shows style, substance, wit, but unfortunately also a loss of directorial control.

Well worth a look, and maybe even worth a decent-sized US release. It didn't get that in its native Canada, but it would be a shame to let this film disappear without trace. There are laughs on offer, after all.

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