Though based on a best-selling kids’ story written in 1973, The House with a Clock in Its Walls feels overly determined as a film, as if it were conceived and developed from scratch by a bunch of Hollywood executives. Some find it curious that torture porn maven Eli Roth directs what is basically a Harry Potter concoction with a few more jump scares and less literary ambition, but by now Roth is firmly in the establishment, and the movie has already proven to be his biggest box office hit to date.
The story is so hackneyed it should be declared public domain material. It’s 1955 and a newly orphaned 10-year-old, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), arrives at the Michigan home of his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), who is his new guardian. Since Black always plays outsized characters, it isn’t immediately obvious if Jonathan’s odd manner of speech and checklist of peccadillos is part of the character or simply the usual Black acting conceits. Actually, it’s a bit of both, but suffice to say that his gothic mansion provides more interest than his personality quirks, and that seems to be the point. Jonathan, it turns out, is a warlock, and the house hides a secret that he’s been trying to uncover for years.
Lewis’s first impulse is to demand his uncle teach him magic, as well, a slightly odd reaction for a boy who’s just lost his parents, and Roth misreads the interaction by playing it strictly for laughs. There’s an old-school screwball vibe to the quick back-and-forth that intensifies theatrically with the appearance of Jonathan’s friend and fellow wizard, Florence (Cate Blanchett), and while the actress should know how to handle this kind of banter, having once played Katherine Hepburn, she can’t quite fit herself into Black’s antic rhythms.
Nevertheless, Black is the main attraction here, mainly because the story hits all the predictable marks without ever getting either scary or particularly exciting. As indicated in the purposely verbose title, the plot has to do with a doomsday clock hidden in the mansion by a previous occupant, another wizard named Isaac, who is meant to add still another layer of comic veneer but, as played by a miscast Kyle MacLachlan, mainly comes across as dull floor wax.
Kids may very well eat this stuff up, but the tone is so relentlessly upbeat, despite the end-of-the-world premise, as to render moot any balancing poignance in Lewis’s situation. Adults only have to ponder their affection for Jack Black as a movie actor. If he’s not your cup of tea, avoid at all costs.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (03-3982-6388).
The House with the Clock in Its Walls home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC