A Fantastic Fear of Everything Review
Simon Pegg has done pretty well for himself. Having made the successful transition from TV actor to big screen actor without any qualms, and ever since his own penned series Spaced, he has become synonymous with comedy acting – so much so that put his name above a film title and you pretty much know what you are going to get: quirky comedy in a very British vein. And that is exactly what the makers of tonight’s feature were hoping for. Trouble is, that is a bit of a double edged sword, although no guarantee of quality with Pegg’s name, there is a deal of expectation with it, and when it doesn’t deliver in the way you might expect there is only one emotion: disappointment. Or am I just being paranoid? Tonight’s feature is based loosely on Withnail and I’s writer/director Bruce Dickinson’s (very) short novella ‘Paranoia in a Laundrette’ and uses it as a springboard to explore the neuroses and foibles of its lead character by getting him to face his fears and confront his past in a circular tale that encompasses deep seated paranoia, fear and serial killers all wrapped together in a comedy fable. Horror comedy is one of the genres that Pegg is also well known for and inevitably, though they are completely different stories, there will be some comparison between tonight’s feature and Shaun of the Dead as they both walk that very fine line. But whereas Shaun manages it effortlessly this is the exception that proves the rule. Ladies and gentlemen, look out behind you as we explore tonight’s feature presentation: A Fantastic Fear of Everything.
The film opens up on our main protagonist, Jack. More precisely it opens up to an extreme close up of his eye. Eyes are very important in this film, not least because they symbolise the paranoia that Jack is beset with. As the camera zooms out it rotates turning Jack to his correct orientation – he’s standing up, ear pressed against his bedroom door. We discover what is going on with Jack by his narration; he is a writer of children’s stories, a pretty successful one at that, and has taken to studying grisly murders in Victorian London for his next subject, but due to his somewhat fragile mind now sees murderers in every dark corner. He has thus taken to carrying a kitchen knife around with him, the theory that it provides some small measure of comfort against his impending doom, which he hears in every noise, no matter how innocent. This first section of the film is important in addressing the character of Jack, his state of mind and his over-reaction to everything. Even the simplest of task (such as urinating) are confounded by the unease of the dangers hidden down the corridor, just out of sight. The open window becomes his mortal enemy by letting in the occasional breeze causing doors to creak open (or closed). A rational mind would close it, an unhinged one superglues it shut. Because of his study he ‘recognises’ patterns in behaviour, or names, where there are none, furthering his delusion that ‘they’ are out to get him. A phone call from his agent (“The phone rang, and no-one could have predicted the calamity that it brought”) informs him that a Hollywood executive is interested in his manuscript and there is a meeting scheduled that night that he must attend. But he has no clean clothes and he simply cannot go to the laundrette as therein lies death …
Pegg does extremely well in this role managing to convey just the right amount of idiocy in a paranoid delusion. He plays both wild and intimate; wide eyed and waving arms to nail biting and tears – his rants when he is piecing together erroneous information to fit in with his delusions are wickedly fast and furious, but articulated well enough that we don’t miss a word. It is difficult to side with someone so unhinged, but Pegg manages to convey pathos and sympathy in Jack and this does draw us too his plight. No, the problem with this first act is not Pegg, it’s the length of time we spend in the flat. The film narrative is split between three main locations, Jacks flat, the laundrette and the cellar of the laundrette – the real meat of the picture happens in the latter two locations but the film spends an inordinate amount of time to get there, so much so that it teeters on boredom despite Pegg’s incredible performance and threatens to derail the whole thing. In fact you could safely remove in excess of ten minutes of footage from this first section without damaging the impact of the film and it would have the effect of moving the narrative forward and picking up the pace. Once Jack is getting ready to go to the laundrette things improve and there is a greater drive forward as well as some wonderfully comedic moments for Pegg to get his teeth into. It is as he is getting ready that things take a turn for the worse and he suffers a near total breakdown causing him to curl up foetally and reluctantly ring for help. He even manages some decent acting when he is talking to his psychiatrist on the phone; it is at this point we get some inkling into exactly what the driving force behind his paranoia actually is.
Dr Friedkin, Jack’s psychiatrist, is played by the wonderful character actor Paul Freeman who only has a couple of scenes but excels in them; he even gets to dispense some genuine psychiatric advice. Freeman has been around for many years and has more credits than I can list here, but has very recently been seen as Dr René Belloq in the incredibly well restored Raiders of the Lost Ark. Whilst his character isn’t quite as memorable as that stellar performance he still manages to convince in the part and has a terrific calming influence on Jack and his ranting’s. He bestows his advice with the cool calm of the knowledgable and makes it interesting; his description of one particular patient’s phobia of a banana (to which Jack makes numerous comments and fails to see the significance or relevance to his own phobia) is particularly telling – i.e. it informs us exactly what is going on in Jack’s mind without giving the story away, a terrific piece of writing and acting. The parting shot of Friedkin helping Jack into the light was not lost on me either.
Once the ‘action’ leaves the flat the claustrophobic atmosphere created in response to the paranoia Jack feels lifts; this has a breathing effect on the film as a whole, so whilst the tone remains one of intimacy the film becomes much more accessible. There is a wonderful symmetry to the location of the laundrette; it is the same one that was the cause of so much consternation for Jack when he was a child, which furthers his desire never to return. But summoning all gumption he heads inside while the three other patrons shiftily eye him over – again fuelling Jack's irrational perceptions. Many of the occurrences in here are taken direct from the book, we hear Jack's thoughts through his narration; much of it is wild but it is delivered with the same pathos. His furtive behaviour means that he is regarded with suspicion, further deepening Jack’s paranoia, making his actions even more nervous. Situations conspire to add embarrassment to Jack and in an attempt at explaining himself he removes his right hand from his duffle coat and then all hell breaks loose!
With the police storming the laundrette and Jack at pains to try and talk himself out of further danger the situation just escalates and he gets a form of electro-therapy (in the form of a Taser) that breaks the barrier of his subconscious and Jack finally understand his irrational fears. It is a moment of pure elation for him marred only by the prospect of being arrested. But once again fortune smiles and Jack finds himself freed, not only physically, but also emotionally – he smiles and decides life isn’t all that bad, picks himself up and enjoys the prospect of meeting the Hollywood executive for the first time. Venturing back into the laundrette which is now brighter and no longer foreboding, he finds that his shirt, although clean, has shrunk, but what is that down the darkened corridor? Thus begins the final act of the film.
Jack awakens to find that he has been tied to pipes along with Sangeet an incredibly attractive patron of the laundrette. And just as Jack’s mind was clear for the first time in years, the walls again come crashing down but this time he feels vindicated in his feelings that there was someone out to murder him – his irrational fear stringing together the events that led up to this point make perfect sense when, in fact, it was random choice. When the killer reveals himself it’s not entirely unexpected and both Jack and Sangeet try to reason with him for their lives. TV actor Alan Drake takes on this role and does so with the same kind of ability that he could be mistaken for long time Pegg collaborator Nick Frost; there are very similar mannerisms to his movement and his vocal range is much the same. When he and Pegg are arguing there are clear parallels to be drawn; I am sure this was intentional by the makers. It is during this reasoning/arguing where the killer unwittingly discloses that his actions are being driven from a similar childhood experience to Jack’s. Seeing this Jack tries to bond, but when this fails he falls back on the only thing he really know how to do – tell a story.
If the film wasn’t surreal enough the makers now cut to a stop motion animated form to show the story as it unfolds. Jack recreates the beloved characters that he is famous for and tells the story of how a frightened and abandoned hedgehog became withdrawn and sadistic, even towards his own brother. It is only when his brother saves him from the road and they, together, discover an orphan hedgehog that he realises his folly, is released from his fear and the two raise the cub free from the trauma that had weighed so heavy before. It is at this point that we, the audience, realise how Jack had managed to become so withdrawn and paranoid. He had been using his stories as a way to comprehend his childhood a sort of cathartic release and when he changed direction and started to research the Victorian murders, his only release was cut off – there was only one way he could go. But more than that, this latest story not only brought home his own fears, but those of the killer too bringing the whole story full circle back to the very laundrette and cellar that spawned their motivations in their adult life. This delicious symmetry in being delivered in the animated from, a child’s story, if you will, draws all the various threads of the narrative together and brings a closure to the characters which allows them to break free of their bonds and begin their life afresh. This is not explicitly spoon fed, but rather dawns making our own realisation mirror those on screen.
Former musician Crispin Mills (son of Hayley) makes his directorial debut with this complex little feature and for the most part does a reasonable job. There is an awful lot going on in the film and each scene is packed with information, be it visual or verbal. As I’ve stated above the first act is far too long and really does threaten to derail the film but over and above this the melding of drama and comedy, with a dash of horror, isn’t quite up to the standards we’ve come to expect with Pegg’s name attached. There are very few laughs to be had in amongst all the inner turmoil of Jack, despite an excellent from Pegg himself. This, along with the structure of the film, its look and sound (as well as its marketing) lead you to believe that it is a different film to the one that you actually sit down to watch. I firmly believe this is why the film has performed so poorly and has suffered at the hands of the critics. The film does have problems, I can’t deny that, but it also has a lot going for it. It is lensed beautifully, the score fits the film perfectly (amazing considering the compromises that had to be made for certain pieces of music – see commentary) and the latter half is well paced and excellently performed. The problem firmly lies with the beginning – if you can make it past that you will be well rewarded. Recommended but with caveats.
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