Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant
Dir. Paul Weitz Universal Pictures -- 3.5 Stars
“Can I turn into a bat and stuff?” wonders starry-eyed Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia), the newest vampire-adolescent to hop aboard the young-adult bloodsucker bandwagon. “No,” replies his vampire mentor, the cloaked and mysterious Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), “that’s bullshit.” This is not the only instance in Paul Weitz’s new film, “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” in which Crepsley correctly associates his young apprentice with tedium, puerility, or just bullshit. In fact, the film is driven by leading adult figures who barely tolerate the unfortunate ingénues who have stumbled into the limelight of the film. Though it consciously perpetuates hackneyed young-adult characters and themes, “Cirque du Freak” is saved by elders who can poke fun at the film’s driest conventions while also providing a compelling set of quirks and superpowers.
Based on the first three books of a 12-part fantasy series by Darren Shan, who lends his name to the protagonist, “Cirque du Freak” is a world glaringly divided between ill-at-ease paranormal teens and charming adult mutants. This former clique constantly threatens to pull the production into the black hole of young-adult drivel.
The main storyline chronicles the dissolution of the close friendship between the straitlaced and ultra-successful Darren and the rebellious, insecure Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Each teen deals with his own emotional baggage: Darren fends off the suffocation of his upper-middle class suburban milieu and his father’s chant of “College! Job! Family!” while Steve copes with an absent father and an alcoholic mother.
But after the best friends attend a freak show, steal a rare and deadly spider, and run away from home, they become mortal enemies and join the long dormant war between the good and evil vampire sects: the Vampires and the Vampaneze. Darren casts off his Sperry topsiders in exchange for a red leather jacket, joins the freak show, and meets the inevitable circus love interest. While Darren woos his half-monkey, half-frumpy high-school freakheart, Steve joins the dark side and starts killing former teachers. When their final dramatic confrontation takes place, Steve explains to Darren with comic seriousness that the Vampaneze think he’s “awesome”: “They say I have a destiny, or whatever.” Like many of their interactions, this climactic meeting induces more second-hand awkwardness than it does tension.
Thankfully, the cinematography and set provide ample relief from the humdrum plot. A whirling and occasionally unfocused camera heightens the camp of the freak show, filled with the patchwork tents and car parts that form the wandering circus’ home. This cozy shantytown contrasts perfectly with the imposing black car of the evil Desmond “Mr.” Tiny (Michael Cerveris), whose license plate, “Des-Tiny,” is one of the film’s many ingratiating flourishes.
The cornerstone of “Cirque du Freak” is a fantastic and animated set of adult characters who keep their own hairbrained discussions of vampire world war to a minimum in order to make room for mesmerizing, impeccably choreographed fight scenes and memorable wisecracking. Salma Hayek shines as Madame Truska, a voluptuous bearded lady who falls into deep clairvoyant trances, uttering “disaster” and “destruction” in cryptic tones only to promptly return to consciousness and perkily ask, “What did I say?” Truska is engaging and whimsical where Darren and Steve are ponderous and uncomfortable, and Weitz does a wonderful job combining the character’s vaudevillian lingerie and spontaneous beard-growth. The little-known Cerveris—most recognizable as The Observer on Fox’s popular drama, “Fringe”—delivers an equally captivating performance as the grosteque, blubbery villain Mr. Tiny. Donning refined opera binoculars and an affected air, Mr. Tiny refuses to engage in the ongoing war around him but makes his allegiances clear with his ominous mumblings (“One does dream of the cataclysm”). Cerveris succeeds at establishing both a comedic and disturbing presence: though his absurd size and mannerisms are laughable, a real threat is clearly lurking in his insouciance of speech and action.
But above all others it is John C. Reilly who steals the show. Clad in a flowing red cape and tight showman pants, Reilly as Crepsley manages to control the flow of the plot without sullying himself in its clichés. In addition to supplying the quips that help to develop the comedic aspects of the film, Crepsley’s cynicism also provides alternative messages to the film’s more obvious moral points about diversity: as a vampire who has lived for 200 years, he philosophizes that “life may be meaningless, but death I still have hope for.” In these sober moments, Reilly showcases his great range, moving beyond his comic roles in “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights,” and lifting the film to a more elevated register.
“Cirque du Freak” is quirky and winning, a light-hearted standout in the otherwise dark and dramatic vampire craze sparked by the heavy-handed moralizing of “Twilight.” Ignoring the soul-searching gaze of any teen who shuffles across the screen, Weitz’s film is just as wondrous a freak show as the circus that is its subject.