Anton Yelchin, Willem Dafoe, Addison Timlin
US theatrical: 28 Feb 2014 (General release)
Odd Thomas is the kind of film that creates a series of critical caveats. For example, to understand this review, it’s perhaps best to go through a few personal loves and hates. Number one, I loathe Dean Koontz. Never read a novel of his that didn’t cause me to make the mandatory comparison to Stephen King and then throw said tome out the nearest window in unimpressed disgust. On the other hand, I love the overall idea of Odd Thomas, to wit, a young man with special gifts in a good natured and goofy battle with the supernatural. Then there is writer/director Stephen Sommers, who creates his own personal cheers and jeers. The Mummy is decent. It’s sequel was just stupid. Van Helsing was a chore, while Deep Rising has its moments. Add bad narrative direction and good casting to the mix and you’ve got enough aesthetic back and forth to cause a case of whiplash.
Luckily, this is one circumstance were the negatives fails to flummox the positives. While Sommers is clearly used to working on a bigger, broader canvas than this, he still makes this movie a pleasant, perverse ride. Thomas (played well by Star Trek‘s Anton Yelchin) is a short order cook working in a lowly desert diner in the California town of Pico Mundo. He can see dead people, but as he tells his pal, Police Chief Porter (Willem Dafoe), he “likes to do something about it.” This means that Thomas goes out of his way to solve the cases of those murdered while dealing with the portents of evil and doom that come with his ability. One day, he comes across creatures known as bodachs. They only show up when something AWFUL is going to happen. Naturally, Thomas has to figure out what’s going to happen, and with the help of his gal pal Stormy (Addison Timlin), he soon learns all paths lead to someone known as “Fungus Bob.”
You can see the potential here. When you learn that Koontz has written six Odd Thomas books over the course of the years, you can understand why a studio, any studio, would see such material and mew “tentpoles.” The only problem is, Odd Thomas is not treated like a blockbuster. Instead, it has the stink of production manipulations and a lengthy legacy including release delays, the lack of the legitimate theatrical outing, and a big fat smelly lawsuit just sitting out there, spoiling the fun. Sommers understands the material and makes it his own. He infuses the film with a kind of cartoon wit, trivializing the terror in the process. Indeed, Odd Thomas is more like Evil Dead 2, or the recent John Dies at the End than a true horror effort. It’s a weird little bugger that bounces between genres until it finally settles in to become a humorous hybrid with a lot of franchise possibilities.
Unfortunately, it looks like Sommers was low balled when taking on this labor of love (apparently, he’s a huge fan of the novels) and this is not a director who functions well in confined spaces. Odd Thomas frequently feels unsettled, constantly re-shifting its ideas and designs in order to compensate for a lack of scope and the budget to render same. Even the casting feels second tier, though Yelchin, Dafoe, Timlin, and a surprising Patton Oswalt more than acquit themselves. But size really doesn’t matter in the end. Sommers stake in the outcome allows us the freedom to find everything he loves about Odd Thomas equally compelling, the rest running effortlessly down the movie’s manic proclivities like so much water off a duck’s determined backside. Yet it’s also obvious why the film is being obscured. Sommers is so close to the material that he’s often blind to its limits.
Take, for example, the set-up. Thomas is introduced, his powers are pointed out, and we get the entire dynamic between our hero, his helper, and his hindrances. That’s the first 10 minutes of the movie and we’ve still got over 80 to go. Without warning, we are thrown headfirst into the entire Fungus Bob stuff, try to figure out the purpose of the bodachs, and end up getting lost in Sommers desire to serpentine his own script. Instead of following a prescribed origin story course, this filmmaker just flails around. In fact, we’d expect nothing different from the man who transformed dead monkeys into mummies and saw Dracula giving “birth” to hundreds of vampire egg sacks. There’s also a reliance on obvious humor (ghosts who can’t touch the living, the chief’s bedroom interruptions) and predetermined punch lines which turns tiring.
Last Summer, German filmmaker Robert Schwentke tried to take a similarly styled property - the loaded with opportunities R.I.P.D. - and ended up delivering a pointless, meandering turd. The problem wasn’t the casting (well, it did include cinematic kryptonite Mary-Louise Parker) or the idea. Instead, there was something about the execution that was a bit…off. The result was a ridiculous waste of time and money. Since Sommers really gets Thomas and his dilemma, his input actually helps the source. It fact, one could argue that it’s Koontz whose the main problem. His idea is more than passable, but what he does with it is rather routine and overly familiar. Yes, we’ve never seen or heard stuff like this before. On the other hand, it’s clearly based on elements gleaned from decades of devotion to genre fiction and media.
In the end, Odd Thomas is a hoot - a half-baked hoot but a hoot nonetheless. It’s fun, occasionally inventive, and infused with the teeming good nature of its actors and its maker. Not everything works, and with Sommers involvement, that’s to be expected. He’s like a kid in a candy store and, unfortunately, we frequently catch him just as his sugar rush is peaking and about to crash. One could easily see this continuing on, perhaps as a TV series for some cable network. The ship has clearly sailed for Odd Thomas as a thriving cinematic dynasty. Instead, this is the kind of movie that requires you to overcome your biases and simply go with the goofball flow. You’ll more or less be glad you did.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.