The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the latest soon-to-be-forgotten adaptation of a classic YA book featuring big-name adult actors hamming it up. Remember The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Nic Cage), Seventh Son (Jeff Bridges) or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (Jim Carrey)? Probably not. Box Office Mojo has a whole list.
This year already saw an epic flop in A Wrinkle in Time, one of the year’s most-anticipated and apparently most disappointing (although something of a black horse favorite here at the MFJ). But nobody can argue Time had a coherent creative direction and emotional core, even if neither were clearly conveyed. Nothing in Clock is nearly as earnest and little about it lands — not the setting, the visual direction, the pacing, or even the “famous actor hamming it” performances. It’s a bore. Worse, it is not even an engaging one.
Torture-horror maestro Eli Roth (who also made this year’s Death Wish) reveals not even his talent for endless tension translates into a movie with a script this belabored and straightforward. Not one character or concept is introduced with grace or wit. Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is an orphan sent to live with his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and Jonathan’s roommate, Florence (Cate Blanchett). Lewis quickly learns the two are a warlock and a witch, respectively. A bit of a nerd, Lewis has trouble at school with bullies but makes friends with a kid named Tarby (Sunny Suljic) who ends up rejecting him, causing Lewis to raise the spirit of dead warlock Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) to impress Tarby, which naturally causes problems. There is also a clock inside the walls of Jonathan’s house that relates to Izard’s evil doom plan and the only person that can stop it, in the end, is Lewis.
One sequence in Clock has any energy, and that’s the climactic moment where Lewis has to rely on his own instincts for unique spellcasting to find the location of the titular clock. It’s goofy and feels genuine. My fellow critics were harsh on Vaccaro’s performance as Lewis, but you can hardly blame a kid for constantly being told to act “sullen and desperate.” When directed to act like an excitable, emotional kid, it works. Vaccaro is miscast, but it’s more that the movie just doesn’t write Lewis with any real consistency.
And Vaccaro is not half as detrimental to the film as Jack Black. I’m a fan of Black in general and think he can turn it out when his role really requires his range. Here, his character is always on. It never feels like he’s speaking to another human being. In a better script, that might be a subtextual character trait, as his backstory involves running away from home and joining the circus. But in this version of Clocks, Black is grating. Blanchett has the opposite problem. Florence is Blanchett’s fallback type — a sharp, chin-held-high expert who doesn’t suffer fools. Her character is given some emotional work toward the end — shocker: it boils down to motherhood — but the movie itself relies almost entirely on her character’s cold-as-ice aspects as she and Black trade barbs. Her underplaying and his overplaying make for two characters who lack any chemistry.
The performances are particularly notable because everything surrounding them is artificial and lifeless. Monster pumpkins? CGI. A flatulent topiary? CGI. An old chair that behaves like the family dog? CGI. Temperamental stained glass windows. Practical. Just kidding. Most movies in 2018 use CGI to convey even the most mundane environments. It’s the way of the world. It isn’t always ineffective or noticeable. Here, it is. There is nothing visually tactile about The House with a Clock in Its Walls save for one scene near the end that pushes the PG and feels like Roth’s single “get” for this go-round. It’s a flashback in which we see Isaac Izard meet a demon personified with physical makeup. When its forked tongue flecks over Izard’s bleeding palm, it’s creepy, gross and somewhat jarring after a film with little otherwise in the way of horror.
Clock is out about a month before October, despite feeling like it is targeted as a Halloween release for kids. There’s nothing scary here. Nothing interesting. Nothing notable. Unless you need a nap, skip it.