Wednesday 19 April 2023

The lost boys: "Renfield"

 has one very sound, pretty funny idea close to its centre, which is to redo Bram Stoker's Dracula as a workplace comedy. Its Robert Renfield - the realtor the vampire turned into a bug-munching familiar, memorably embodied by Tom Waits in the '92 version, and here by Nicholas Hoult in the gap between seasons of The Great - is now fully cognisant of the abuses rained down on him by his murderous employer, and seeking some form of redress. This Dracula, repositioned as literature's oldest Horrible Boss, is played by Nicolas Cage under varyingly elaborate layers of latex as the character recovers from an early immolation that doesn't seem to humble him any: still the Count treats Renfield like crap, before reeling him back into the corpse-snatching fold with the odd insincere compliment. The disappointment with the altogether hectic film that follows is that, at a crucial point in its genesis, someone clearly decided this promising idea wasn't in itself enough to sustain the movie. Instead, Cage and Hoult find themselves dropped in the middle of a non-canonical gang war, initiated by Mob boss Shohreh Aghdashloo and her useless, posturing offspring Ben Schwartz against a trio of ska-fanatic coke dealers, with Awkwafina waving her arms around in the middle as the traffic cop attempting to restore public order. Only in the closing reel does the movie start to work through the Renfield-Dracula dynamic; most often here, the two leads resemble bystanders caught in somebody else's crossfire. Did everyone involved go into this expecting sequels that might develop the central relationship (and which now look unlikely to appear)?

By all accounts, Renfield flopped last weekend, which is understandable, but it's a funny sort of fuck-up: a major studio comedy that troubles to find its own visual aesthetic (shoutout to Rob Renfield's multicoloured comeback sweater, early frontrunner as 2023's Most Desirable Wardrobe Item), but also labours through far too many competing ideas than is healthy for a 93-minute picture. Director Chris McKay adopts much the same approach as he did in 2017's The Lego Batman Movie, spitballing frantically and lobbing whatever's to hand at the screen, only to a point where the new film quickly begins overwriting itself, and losing sight of what's funniest. The A, B and C plots in Ryan Ridley's script are at least semi-diverting, but they don't criss-cross gracefully, as they would on TV, so much as stumble repeatedly over one another, jamming up any hope one might have of getting on this precise wavelength. Granted, McKay's live-action animation approach pays off in the stunt sequences: here, you feel the film cracking its knuckles, and having the fun it wants us to have. (It also allows us to witness Hoult doing extraordinary things with a man's severed arms.) But what's in between can't fully work itself out: it's like some awkward crossover episode involving characters from The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and What We Do in the Shadows. (And it's too busy rushing through its multiple narrative pile-ups to allow its actors to be properly funny, as Awkwafina is on Nora from Queens and Hoult really is on The Great.) It gives good, imaginative splatter, but the issue isn't with arterial spray as with the chaotic framework it's been hosed over. You come away with a renewed appreciation for the brisk clarity of plotting and hyper-efficient gag delivery of our best sitcoms; set against those, Renfield seems... well, clotted.

Renfield is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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