I can’t remember the last time I saw a film as entitled and oblivious as “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant”. I can name plenty of films which thought they were going to kick-start a franchise never one that didn’t understand that the first movie has to stand on its own and not rely on movies that don’t (and probably will never) exist. This entitlement poisons the pacing and retards any character development. In addition, the movie is made worse by director Paul Weitz ignoring the artistic advantages of his setting in favor of flashy, heartless CG effects. If not for the brilliant John C. Reilly, “Cirque du Freak” would deserve to be burned to the ground by angry townsfolk.
For all but the last 20 minutes of its runtime, “Cirque du Freak” plays as one giant first act. The title character, Darren (Chris Massoglia), doesn’t even become a vampire (I’m sorry, half-vampire) until over halfway through the film. Before that, he’s a straight-laced preppy pile of bland but everyone at school loves him because he’s a nice guy. Massoglia is likable but that affability works against him because as the film moves along you see his extraordinary circumstances don’t change him in the slightest.
Also stuck in neutral is his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) who’s a bad influence and secretly dreams of becoming a vampire. The two visit the Cirque du Freak when it rolls into down and it’s here that Weitz put all of his effort. The Cirque puts on an incredible show and it has almost no payoff whatsoever. The show’s only important because the grand finale is from Larten Crepsley (Reilly) who Steve recognizes as a vampire from one of his books.
Once backstage, Crepsley receives about eight pages worth of exposition from Willem Dafoe playing a fellow vampire and panicking about a war with the “vampaneeze”. Darren hides in a closet watching all of this including the end where Steve bursts in the room, demands to be turned into a vampire, and Crepsley refuses. I won’t go into the details (because it, like almost everything else in this movie, takes too long) but eventually Darren has to become Crepsley’s half-vampire assistant and fake his own death in order to save Steve. Steve is ungrateful and gets turned vampire by the vampaneeze and thus becomes his best friend’s arch-nemesis. And according to the film, no matter which side you’re on, when you become a vampire you apparently get a fancy new wardrobe and a stylist.
This entire set-up represents the majority of the film. Note that nothing really happens except laying the groundwork for a larger drama. However, realizing that their film barely had more than one act, there’s a rushed climax featuring a kerfuffle between Crepsley and Steve’s mentor while Darren and Steve have their own sissy fight.
It’s obvious that the narrative of the film should focus on the divergent paths of Steve and Darren and the corrupting influence of power given to two boys who feel powerless. Yet Weitz’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Brian Helgeland) can’t even manage the core fundamentals of their friendship let alone build to a tragic confrontation. It’s a friendship that has no camaraderie and doesn’t even make sense. Steve and Darren are supposed to be life-long best friends yet Darren tells us he’s crazy about spiders the way Steve’s crazy about vampires. Yet Steve shows no hesitation to killing spiders right in front of Darren.
Even worse, both characters come off as whiny brats with Darren bored by his suburban middle-class life and Steve dripping with self-pity over his broken home and alcoholic mother. Skip to the end where they’re now mortal enemies in a climactic battle for the fate of the world orchestrated by a grandiose figure named Mr. Tiny and it’s hard not to be dumbstruck by “Crique du Freak’s” overwhelming arrogance. The film can’t even construct a single, 100 minute narrative, but it’s already acting like the rest of the trilogy is in the can and we should be awed by its epic scope. This is the problem with franchise fever because it goes beyond cliffhangers but builds an entire world and forgets the characters that inhabit it.
Meanwhile, Weitz is too enamored of his special effects to understand his own setting. The CG is impressive but it’s also inappropriate. A story about freaks shouldn’t be using the slickest, state-of-the-art CG. It should be relying on down-and-dirty practical effects and old magicians’ tricks in order to convey the Cirque’s 500-year history and the ramshackle lives of its performers. I never felt like Weitz did any research or wanted to make the Cirque feel like a real place. He put his efforts into creating memorable looking performers with neat and ookie abilities which will come into play in a hypothetical future film.
God bless John C. Reilly. If everything in the film was as good as him, “Cirque du Freak” would be one of the best movies of the year. He outshines everything and plays Crepsley as sardonic, cynical, but also lonely and defensive. While “Cirque” is more aware of its brand potential than its story, Reilly plays his role straight and acts like he’s in a good movie even though he’s so much better than it. He doesn’t elevate the film but nothing could. Instead, he just provided the life jacket that helped me get to the end of the film before it could drown me in a tidal wave of vanity.
I’m terrible at predicting box office but I think (or at least hope) we’ve seen the last of “Cirque du Freak” and I couldn’t be happier. The film wants to leave you excited for where the story will go next but it does absolutely nothing to earn your enthusiasm in the first place. Weitz cares more about his special effects looking real instead of creating real characters. His actors have nothing to work with because they’re all playing characters who are supposed to develop in movies that don’t exist yet. Only Reilly manages to create something out of nothing whereas “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assitant” just wants something for nothing.
Rating —– D minus