Weird is a hard concept to define and an even more difficult tone to achieve to positive effect in film. The best works succeed in building a wonderful weird by ultimately using the tone as a compelling aesthetic or narrative tool. Guillermo Del Toro, Spike Jonze, Terry Gilliam—peel away the strangeness of these auteurs’ works, and you’ll find deftly organized, deeply human narratives.
So weird fails, then, when it’s trying too hard to be this way. When a writer, musician, or filmmaker seeks solely to make something weird and to buck trends, the product lacks substance. It feels forced.
Which brings us, then, to “A Fantastic Fear of Everything.” The debut film by musician Crispian Mills (co-directed by Chris Hopewell), which opened in Britain in 2012 and finally sees stateside release this week, is a work that tries, with incredible gusto, to be quirky. And while its story is ultimately human, Mills’ insistence on cramming experimentation into the film’s one hundred minutes prevents it from being anything more than an example of utterly wasted potential.
“A Fantastic Fear of Everything” centers on Jack (Simon Pegg), a deeply paranoid children’s author who can barely leave his house for fear of being killed. Indeed, having become so engulfed in researching Victorian serial killers for his next work (far different, clearly, from the children’s books through which he made his name), he can barely leave his house, which has become a slovenly, disgusting mess. For reasons that become clear as the story unfolds, he is terrified of the world around him, especially a launderette across the street. But to achieve success, both literary and personal, he has to finally conquer this fear.
Unconventional and dark, yes, but a possibly touching story, right? Wrong. Any attempt to bring us close to the character is quickly dashed by Mills’ fits of stylistic experimentation, which feel out of place. We spend the first third or so of the film almost entirely in Jack’s apartment, where we’re privy to the details of his paranoia, but the sheer amount of distraction from the character is staggering. The puppet staging of grizzly murders and the inexplicable appearance of a strange man with an eyeball in his mouth throw off the film’s trajectory, making the story feel like a series of vignettes rather than a unified narrative.
These two examples only scratch the surface of the stylistic interruptions: excruciatingly long musical sequences, a serial killer’s performance of “The Final Countdown,” and a freestyle rap break (yes, you read that correctly) all weigh the film down, preventing any kind of insight into Jack’s mind. What’s worse, because of these moments, any kind of momentum that the narrative has is utterly destroyed.
These diversions would be fine if the film were funny. Yet the humor in “A Fantastic Fear of Everything” makes wrong turn after wrong turn. Rather than create humor in the world around Jack, it makes Jack, for a great deal of the film, the butt of the joke. In essence, the entire first act’s punch line is, “Isn’t mental illness hilarious?”
This isn’t to say that comedy can’t or shouldn’t relate to mental illness, but we’re encouraged to laugh mainly at Jack, rather than with him. Even when Jack finally escapes from his house, the quality of the humor doesn’t improve, going from mildly offensive to juvenile to nonsensical in a matter of minutes.
Perhaps most disappointingly, there are moments, amidst the quirk being shoved down our throats, when we can actually breathe and see a brief glimpse of what could have been. Simon Pegg, even for the film’s flaws, brilliantly portrays the manic nature of the character, providing a well-needed pathos to Jack’s insanity.
Indeed, the strongest moments of the film come when Pegg is the center of attention. In one powerful moment, Jack, broken down, lays on the floor, sobbing on the phone with his psychologist, and in another, Jack discovers the traumatic, crushing reasoning behind his irrational fears. Yet these moments are few and far between. “A Fantastic Fear of Everything” could clearly have been a profound character piece, if not for Mills’ insistence on drawing attention away from Simon Pegg, the best thing this film has going for it.
“A Fantastic Fear of Everything” serves as a lesson to aspiring filmmakers: experimentation, sadly, does not equal quality. The film proves that you can’t make weird, or quirky, or strange, or whatever you want to call it; the je ne sais quoi that makes a film truly magical comes from its intangible elements, a connection formed between screen and audience.
Weird is beautiful or repugnant, weird is joyful or full of sorrow, but weird is always effortless. With “A Fantastic Fear of Everything,” Crispian Mills has, essentially, made the cinematic equivalent of frameless glasses: interesting, on the outside, but unable to mask a lack of substance.