Funny story, if only to me: My brother comes up to me out of the blue and tells me he really wants to see The House with a Clock in Its Walls. I ask him why he seemed to be so excited, given his usual reticence toward seeing “family” movies. He tells me he just saw the trailer, and he thought it looked really good. Now, I hadn’t seen a trailer at that point, but all of the marketing material I had seen gave quite the nasty taste in my mouth. Based on just posters and title, I took the film to be yet another Jack Black “family” vehicle over-loaded with CGI and wanting on pretty much every other front. I told my
brother as much. He just kinda gave me an odd look, went “Hm”, and the issue was dropped. I didn’t mean to dissuade him then, I just wanted to give my barely-informed two cents.
The plot of the film follows young Lewis, recently orphaned by an accident and sent to live with his uncle, whom he’s never met. Lewis is a bit of a dork – okay, more than a bit – and the new guy, so he doesn’t fit in well at school. However, after hearing and seeing some strange happenings in his uncle’s house and hearing some grisly rumors, he finds out that his uncle is an honest-to-goodness warlock, a spellcaster, a suped-up magician. He’s surprisingly thrilled at this news, and begins training to be a warlock himself. Pretty soon he’s helping his uncle hunt down a magical doomsday clock hidden – you guessed it – in the walls of the house.
Not to toot mine own horn any here, but things pretty much went the way I expected. Though the basic, bare-bones premise of the plot is indeed intriguing, the film doesn’t really go anywhere particularly interesting, opting instead for the now-usual route of filling the screen with CGI whimsy. In this case, though, it’s whimsy by way of someone reading a description of whimsy from a coldly-written page and trying his/her best to stick as closely as possible to the source. Everything has been seen better before in better settings. But, yeah, gotta get that CGI quota met, eh? Then there’s this running message about embracing one’s own inner weirdness, but, like everything else, it rings rather hollow and well-trod, adding nothing of substance, uniqueness, or nuance to the conversation. Like we’ve heard dozens of times before, kids, let your freak flags fly, regardless of the thoughts of your peers. Why? ‘Cause, y’know, it’s good and stuff.
In terms of the acting, Jack Black is incredibly uneven, with scenes ranging from full shit-giving and fun-having to those where he looks both tired and check-out. Cate Blanchett is fun and engaging, but her talents are mostly wasted on a role that doesn’t demand much out of her. Owen Vaccaro is mostly fine as Lewis, really selling the loneliness and standoffishness. Everyone else does their job well enough not to warrant much mention. Behind the camera, I was shocked to learn Eli Roth directed this, though there is no flair, no style, nothing to indicate his presence there beyond his name in the credits. Thankfully, he wasn’t allowed to write the script, though screenwriter Eric Kripke didn’t do much of interest with John Bellairs’s novel anyway, so maybe having Roth’s inane ramblings would have been welcome. Tough call.
Overall, there isn’t much to recommend in House, as it’s the same sort of shallow, overblown “family” flick we’ve come to expect these days. I’d just wait for Goosebumps 2 later this month: if it’s half as good as the first one, it’ll still be better than this empty drivel.