Tastes like teen spirit

John C. Reilly steals the freak show

Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
Studio: Universal Pictures
Rated: PG-13
Cast: John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Ray Stevenson
Director: Paul Weitz
WorkNameSort: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
Our Rating: 4.00

Sarcasm, that handy postmodern tool against the forces of evil, helped Buffy combat the Anne Rice romanticism of undead lore for seven TV seasons and helped that show ward off cheesy vampire overload. Now it makes a comeback at just the right time: Vampires are back in a big, teen-brooding way, and here comes sarcasm again to make the legacy of the bloodsucker palatable.

John C. Reilly plays the ancient Larten Crepsley, one of the main attractions of the Cirque du Freak sideshow and the main attraction of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. Nearly two centuries of life on earth have left Crepsley cynical by default, making his employment of a teenage proxy, Darren (Chris Massoglia), a chore in and of itself. Crepsley was happy with his bearded-lady girlfriend (Salma Hayek) and his exotic pet spider, but now that Darren's meddled with one of those, he must make up for it by turning half-vampire and alienating his family and friends in the name of servitude.

Director Paul Weitz, adapting Darren Shan's series of young adult novels with the help of Brian Helgeland, maintains a sense of freakish fun that harkens back more to Barry Sonnenfeld's playfully Gothic Addams Family films and Weitz's own coming-of-age work on American Pie and About a Boy than to the latest Twilight installment (ironically directed by Paul's brother, Chris). Darren and his best-friend-turned-envious-foe, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), are understandably transfixed by the supernatural opportunities that the Cirque allows, and when things go awry, they react as any teen would ' with a nice dollop of PG-13- worthy profanity.

In fact, Weitz almost has too much to work with when it comes to the freak show, to the point that some characters get shortchanged. There's Orlando Jones, thin-waisted and barely there. Capable comedians Jane Krakowski and Kristen Schaal are similarly scarce, and Willem Dafoe gets only a scene or two as Crepsley's pal. Other than that, it's down to ringleader Ken Watanabe, snake boy Patrick Fugit, monkey girl Jessica Carlson and our thoroughly adequate Everyteen, Massoglia, to fend off the forces of evil, led by Michael Cerveris in a fat suit and Ray Stevenson on a strict scene-chewing diet.

And then there's Reilly. He matches the lavish production design with stubborn personality. The nonchalant way in which he'll snap a kid's neck, the sardonic manner with which he so quickly retorts, all of this makes his inevitable transformation into reluctant protector that much easier to swallow, and by the time the stakes of the climax grow more concerned with hastily setting up a potential franchise, his Crepsley proves to be a rooting interest above all others. Reilly's Crepsley makes both the afterlife and any sequels to come equally appealing prospects.


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