One of the biggest issues in a genre films is the lack of likeable characters. A movie can have a great concept, solid editing, beautiful cinematography, talented performers and even a witty script, but if the characters don’t at least come off as real, you can end up with a very well-crafted film with plenty of great moments – and a complete lack of resonance that will leave you wondering what the hell the name of that pretty good movie was that you say a few months later. A lazy writer uses conflict between characters to define because it’s easier that giving each character unique traits, but the end result is often a film full of folks that are either bland or outright off-putting.
In director Stephen Sommers’ better films, like DEEP RISING and THE MUMMY, it’s the entertaining characters that give a boost to the relatively standard plotting. The stuff that’s actually going on in the film matters less than watching charismatic actors having a good time playing charismatic roles. Treat Williams in RISING and Brendan Fraser in MUMMY seem to be genuinely having a great time, and even if Fraser went to that particular well a few too many times, there’s a casual lightheartedness amidst all the dark goings on that makes Sommers’ best work a pleasure to watch.
It’s a trait that’s sorely lacking in the likes of Sommers’ VAN HELSING or G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA, but thankfully returns for ODD THOMAS, Sommers’ cinematic adaptation of the Dean Koontz novel. Delayed for a year pending some legal issues, ODD THOMAS arrives in theaters and on Video on Demand this weekend, and while a much smaller film that Sommers’ recent work, it’s a welcome return to his genre-driven work that had a sense of fun.
That sense is driven primarily by the title character, a short order cook in the small California town of Pico Mundo played by the FRIGHT NIGHT remake’s Anton Yelchin. Odd has the unlikely power to see and be able to communicate with the dead, much like THE FRIGHTENERS’ Frank Bannister, the film ODD THOMAS most resembles. He uses these powers to help local police chief Wyatt Porter (Willem Dafoe in a presently non-sinister role) solve crimes in the area, which seems especially prone to supernatural shenanigans.
Odd can also see shadow-like beings called Bodachs, who follow around those who are about to die horribly like vultures. It’s these creatures that lead him to follow a stranger he nicknames “Fungus Man” due to his appearance and the resulting detective work leads him to discover a mysterious gateway and a plot to bring down a heaping helping of darkness onto the town. It’s up to him to save the day, with assistance from his girlfriend Stormy, an ice cream shop worker played by Addison Timlin.
It’s the relationship between Odd and Stormy that brings ODD THOMAS out of likeably bland supernatural adventure and into a film that gives the audience something to invest in. On paper, their relationship would seem almost too cute – their soulmate status solidified by a fortune telling machine – but Yelchin and Timlin have genuine chemistry, and Sommers’ screenplay gives them banter that’s witty and fun, which the pair delivers beautifully. Despite not being the center of the film, Stormy is a fully-formed character rather than an idealist girlfriend archetype. It’s a joy to watch, and it gives the film enough emotional resonance to make you genuinely want these crazy kids to succeed.
Which is good, as it’s occasionally a little vague as to what they’re trying to succeed at. ODD THOMAS skips through the lead character’s origin in order to get to the plot pretty quickly, which is a blessing in that we’re spared a half hour of him coming to terms with his powers, but also a curse in that we feel as though we’re entering the story after the first commercial break.
We also get a little bit too much narration in order to fill in the blanks, though we never quite get the answers to some things – Why does Porter have so much trust in Odd’s abilities, for example? And why do the Bodachs go after some potential victims of brutal crimes but not all? And why does Patton Oswalt show up as a metal worker who seems to know about Odd’s powers? ODD THOMAS features a quick 93-minute running time and there’s clearly been some fat cut out of Koontz’ book for the film version, but they may have erred on the side of trimming too much, and you may have to have read the book to fill in some of the blanks.
Thankfully, however, the performances and a fair share of clever moments still make ODD THOMAS worth a look, and a film that manages to stick the landing even if the routine itself is a bit bungled. THE FRIGHTENERS is the obvious comparison, but it reminded me of a more amiable version of the unfairly-maligned DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT, another supernatural detective story based on well-regarded source material, in that it’s got enough character to be an entertaining ride despite the occasional narrative stumble. It’s certainly the most enjoyable film Sommers has made in a decade, and I welcome his return to form.
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