REVIEW: Lurid, Ludicrous Subtext Makes Case 39 More Fun Than You Might Think

Movieline Score: 7

This morning Case 39 snuck into theaters, and I snuck in right behind it. (What's up, one other guy in the theater?) When a studio -- in this case Paramount -- shelves a movie for almost four years, and then declines to screen it, it can be tough to ignore the clutter of context once you finally do sit down to watch the thing. Questions poke in: So what was the studio so afraid of? Did the director (horror newcomer Christian Alvart) lose the picture? Were the stars (Renée Zellweger and Bradley Cooper -- love connection, y'all) unhappy? Did they put the first screening of the day in an IMAX theater to bilk the critics obliged to see it out of another three bucks?

Certainly there's nothing IMAX-worthy on offer here, but there is enough lurid, ludicrous subtext in the material to keep fans of such things happy. As trash, this is top of the line, a gift to fans of Zellweger's seminal work in the The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As a horror specimen Zellweger, a grown woman now, has graduated from the sacrificial embodiment of adolescent sexual anxiety to a vessel of maternal ambivalence. Here she plays Emily, a social worker who keeps herself single to maintain the sanctity of her emotionally demanding job. This means fending off the valiant advances of Doug (Cooper), a child therapist to whom Emily refers many of her damaged children; together they can play parent (and couple) in a professional realm without ever having to really get messy.

That is until Lilly (Jodelle Ferland) comes along. Emily has a bad feeling about Lilly's case; this does not mark her as particularly perceptive, as Lilly's parents (played by Callum Keith Rennie and Margaret Sullivan) are absurdly sketchy, twitchy, red-eyed freaks. Emily's superhuman social worker instincts lead her and her friend in the police force (the thrilling Ian McShane) to save Lilly just as her parents are about to lightly toast her (not a euphemism). A lunar little girl with eyes so steeped in blue they seem to shade into brown, Lilly attaches to Emily, and asks what any kid would in that situation: Can I come home with you? Notably, Lilly keeps asking, batting away Emily's demurrals until she is forced to say the words, "I'm sorry, I'm just not mom material."

Having said it out loud, Emily is immediately compelled to prove otherwise. She takes Lilly in and Doug takes her on in group therapy; all three bathe in the glow of functionality. Up to this point the direction is pedestrian at best, and though Alvart loses his way during the sudden transition into more demanding genre territory, he eventually finds a schlocky rhythm and rides it out. About as scary as a shadow puppet, Case 39 is more fun as a modern procreation parable, and a total kick as Renée Zellweger's attempt to enter Jodie Foster territory. Bad things start happening all around Emily, beginning with one of the "siblings" in group. Sweet, sad-eyed Lilly is a bit of handful, it turns out -- or, as her father put it: "She will figure out your version of hell and then make you live it."

We get some literal depictions to that effect, but more compelling than wasps crawling out of Bradley Cooper's eye sockets is the version that emerges from Emily's subconscious. There is a gesture toward the grisly death of her mother, but Emily's hell is in fact a needy kid tugging at her sleeve, destroying her only chance at romantic happiness and effing up her career. "You have to do what I say," Lilly chirps. "If I say I want a new dress, you have to do it; if I say I want ice cream every day, you have to do it." What's so great about those rather unthreatening words is that they form part of the film's nutso climactic scene, and are uttered while Zellweger is driving a Volvo at kamikaze speed and sobbing in anguish at every stipulation. Maybe Paramount wasn't sure having Bridget Jones resolve to kill a little devil she mistakenly thought she could handle would be good for business. By the end of this silly but not unredeemed film there was no question in my mind -- I mean all such questions literally left my mind -- and I fell, just a little bit, into its wonky allegoric groove.


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