Simon Pegg has become something of a nerd world hero, thanks to his co-writing and starring role in the three Edgar Wright genre-send-ups that make up the loose Cornetto Trilogy, and his supporting performances in big time Hollywood franchises “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible” (both overseen by that geek godhead J.J. Abrams). But all of this adulation from the Comic Con crowd has had a weird way of obscuring the fact that Pegg is a really terrific actor, capable of surprising range and equipped to handle dramatic as well as comedic scenarios. Which makes “Fantastic Fear of Everything,” a singularly bizarre new horror comedy, both exhilarating and frustrating: it allows for Pegg to stretch as an actor, going to some pretty whacked out places, but the film itself ultimately stalls out, leaving a great performance at the heart of a movie most won’t particularly care for.
The set-up for “Fantastic Fear of Everything” is simple and deranged (it was based, in part, on a story by “Withnail & I” director Bruce Robinson): Pegg plays Jack, a writer who had previously penned a children’s book about a precocious hedgehog named Harold. Not wanting to me stymied by the children’s book (and feeling that it had something to do with the dissolution of his marriage), Jack has instead switched to researching and writing about serial killers, mad men, and monsters. As the movie opens, it’s reached the point where he’s locked himself in his London flat, his hair bedraggled and his clothes dirty (“I’m down to my last sock,” he says gravely).
While the research might have started off as academic, it has reached the point where Jack has become obsessed with his subjects – and convinced that the man who wants to meet him about an upcoming television project (entitled, of course, “Decades of Death”) is somehow related to a series of unsolved murders. Paranoia doesn’t quite cover it. He’s become entombed in fear, carrying around a carving knife inside his apartment, even though he’s the only one ever there (usually in a pair of haggard tighty-whities). Not only does Pegg scramble around in his dingy underwear (he’s also an underrated physical performer), but Jack also narrates his events, ominously turning his every waking moment into the stuff of lurid paperback novels. Every phone ring, he concedes, could be filled with fateful importance.
Single-location comedies can wear out their welcome very quickly, but there’s something that borders on the electrifying that comes with just watching Pegg try to get out of the door (he’s determined to go to this meeting – even if it kills him). Watching Pegg run around his dilapidated flat, trying to wash and dry his clothes in his kitchen, or super-gluing a window shut (he inadvertently affixes his butcher knife to his hand) is nothing short of exciting – with “Fantastic Fear of Everything,” you’re given the opportunity to watch a comedian at the top of his game convey every gesture and movement with a sublime hilariousness along with a deep, blackened sadness.
It’s enough to make you wish that he would never, you know, get out of the apartment. But, of course, he does, making a misguided trip to the launderette to wash some of his dirty clothes. Everything that can go wrong, does, and as the movie pinballs along, you get the sense that Jack isn’t just crippled by fear but that he might be psychotic. It’s another instance where it becomes clear that some very disturbed minds were responsible for “Fantastic Fear of Everything” and that anything could, and probably will, happen because of this.
Unfortunately, the movie runs out of steam towards the third act, where it becomes very apparent that the source material was much shorter. It’s still funny and engaging, for the most part, playing out like what would happen if Ben Wheatley decided to direct an episode of “Castle,” but that nervous energy from the first part of the movie is dissipated and dispelled. Everything becomes antiseptically clean, with lose ends and character motivations tidied up thanks to lengthy, partially animated flashbacks and a kind of “Lost“-ian doggedness to tie different characters together.
“Fantastic Fear of Everything” was directed by Crispian Mills, a former rock star and filmmaker, and Chris Hopewell, a music video director and animator, and they each seem insanely keen on trying just about everything out, unsure of what will work and what won’t. That means that, for no particular reason, the movie will turn into something that resembles a creepy Eastern European stop motion short, before being dragged back into live action, the entire enterprise’s tone still wobbly from the trip. They certainly know how to use music and their experimentalist spirit is very much appreciated; you can feel them going for the same vibe of Robinson’s earlier movies or perhaps the fearless genre-blending of people like Joe Dante or John Landis, who can make truly horrifying events and characters also deeply human and funny. It’s just that, as the movie enters the third act, what had been a carefully balanced equation becomes lopsided; the horror takes a backseat to some arm chair psychology and, worse still, forced sentimentality.
All of this makes it seem like “Fantastic Fear of Everything” is not worth watching. The fact that it was originally released in Britain almost two full years ago is also a warning sign. But the script is smart enough, with some very appreciated zingers about how similar writers and serial killers are (my favorite line: “I know I look weird but I’m a writer”), and just as a showcase for Pegg’s abilities, it shouldn’t be missed. Between this and “The World’s End” (arguably the deepest, most subtle work Pegg had done in that trilogy), he is slowly revealing himself to be one of cinema’s most interesting comedic performers, one who can make your heart ache just as easily as he elicit a giggle. At the very least, “Fantastic Fear of Everything” has a fantastic central performance. Sometimes, that’s enough. [B]