Pity the plight of the writer — at least as seen through the eyes of the filmmaker. The solitary business of writing is the jumping-off point for many a claustrophobic celluloid descent into madness, whether it's in Barton Fink's surreal journey through a hellish Hollywood, in Charlie Kaufman's fractured look at writer's block in Adaptation, or in The Shining's Jack Torrence getting a touch of murderous cabin fever while snowbound at the Overlook Hotel. Even a relatively well-adjusted writer like Misery's Paul Sheldon gets put through the ringer by a deranged fan. There's no winning.
Crispian Mills and Chris Hopewell's A Fantastic Fear of Everything isn't going to inspire a spike in creative writing MFA enrollments, for its part; it pretty much throws more than one variation of the above at Jack, its beleaguered and bedraggled central author. Unfortunately, it won't inspire much else, either. Mills, who also wrote the screenplay, is better known as the frontman for the band Kula Shaker, while Hopewell is a music video director — and their first stab at feature filmmaking both benefits from their prior careers and bears the marks of their inexperience.
As a songwriter, for instance, Mills probably knows well the anxious frustration of sitting in a room alone, trying to force an idea into existence. And he magnifies that experience by orders of magnitude in creating Jack (Simon Pegg), a children's-book author attempting to make the leap to TV writing via a series on 19th-century mass murderers.
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Which, of course, requires a lot of research — and as he descends further into the minds of maniacs, a paranoia that he'll be the target of just such a murderer grips him and he becomes a trembling, kitchen-knife-wielding mess.
The film bears the mark of an experienced visual stylist, with richly colored design and all the flair and polish that Hopewell brought to his music-video work; the film blends Terry Gilliam-style freneticism with Guillermo Del Toro's nightmare sense of the macabre. Jack's London also manages to feel both modern and like a noir-tinged throwback to the Victorian era that dominates his imaginings.
The insights into creative anxiety and the deft presentation pair nicely with Pegg's performance, which is as wild and unhinged as his unruly hair and scraggly beard. And Mills and Hopewell obviously have a surplus of ideas.
In fact that's the problem with A Fantastic Fear of Everything: It does seem to contain the everything of the title. The film's tone veers wildly between its comedic and horrific instincts, with broadly funny pratfalls coming just on the heels of chill-inducing dream sequences. But the gags are never as funny as they need to be, and only serve to deaden the impact of the scares.
There are two prominent musical sequences as well — one with Jack freestyling over a hip-hop beat in his flat, another in which he awkwardly dance-walks down the street to an Ice Cube tune — that distantly echo scenes in Pegg's 2004 zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. That, alas, serves only to underline that A Fantastic Fear isn't blending laughs and thrills as effectively as that film.
I haven't even gotten to the further business about childhood-trauma, the dream sequence featuring Jack in kid's PJs walking through a cardboard forest with his pirate-costumed Victorian psychology consultant, Dr. Friedkin (Paul Freeman), or the stop-motion animated sequence about a psychotic hedgehog. There's just too much going on here.
That fact is made abundantly clear when the film takes a hard turn away from its inwardly focused, voiceover-dominated approach for a final act that shoehorns in a love interest (Amara Karan) and swerves into standard-issue torture-basement survival-horror territory. Only, you know, with jokes.
The effect eventually becomes that of about a dozen story pitches all strung together. Any one of them might have the potential for greatness in isolation. Try to mash them up into one movie, though, and much like Jack, they fall to pieces.