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Published: Friday, 3/14/2003

Movie review: Willard **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Rats. I just got back from Willard, and what a wonderful movie (in a way) about rats. They spoke English. They evolved to the point where they could practice class warfare. They developed a taste for the Mercedes tires of the super-rich. Let me revise that: These rats speak in squeaks and gnashing teeth, but they understand English. And still, considering the film's discount-bin Tim Burton aesthetics, Gothic horror vibe, and dusty, decaying puzzle of a mansion, I bet if they could talk, they would have those cute little British accents like all the usual Hollywood creeps.

The thousands (and thousands) of sniveling, dashing rats that populate Willard grew up, seemingly, in an air duct, although there is a passing reference to construction work turning over the neighborhood. Never mind how so many rats might go unnoticed in sprinkler-and-minivan suburbia. And anyway, before you have time to wonder, the most feral beast of all shows up: Crispin Glover, crazy as a rabid fox as ever.

'Tis a rare feat to show up thousands of churning rats. The production notes explain that director Glen Morgan (Final Destination) used 550 real ones too, including a poodle-size African Gambian fatty named Ben, just like the star of the 1971 original, and its sequel, Ben. The rest were puppets and computer-generated, as if one or two more would make all the difference.

For a rat movie, the rats are sweet, misunderstood scavengers, nothing like the shiver-inducing slithery, snapping things of the original. Their havoc is confined to murders of the gonna-make-you-pay-sucka variety. But then the star here isn't the rats, curiously, but Glover, who has the most rat-like appearance of all. With a sharp, angular face, eyes that glow unearthly shades of red when he goes bonkers (which is most of the time) and a permanently quavering, pale appearance, he seems anxious to dart from any well-lit room.

You probably remember him best as the pathetic loser of a father in Back to the Future, or the pathetic loser of a teenager in The River's Edge. Or for his subsequent bizarro-pathetic David Letterman appearances that culminated in a legendary 1987 heart-stopper when Glover went loopy and screamed, β€œI can kick!” and then kicked, inches from Letterman's face. Glover is inspired casting here, a guy famous for being weird, and he's a first-class screwball here.

This remake of Willard isn't much of anything: the opening credit sequence is second-rate art school stop-motion animation; the cast is an assemblage of good actors stuck with one-note characters like the evil boss (R. Lee Ermey) and the sympathetic co-worker (Laura Elena Harring); and the tone is hysterical and overcooked, which renders nothing scary and removes most of the sympathy we develop for the lonely Willard. But I hate to throw the baby African Gambian out with the Norwegian white bathwater. There is surprisingly good stuff here: A funny, very nasty visit by a cat to Willard's rat-overrun home, and a seriously unsettling air of airless claustrophobia, underscored by the use of cages and mesh grates to suggest Willard's mental prison.

But that last thing is something we get right away, anyway, when Willard is dithering around in misery for his dying mother, verbally abused by his boss. What lends Willard some watchability is Glover. This man is genuinely alarming. It's as if he worked in movies for 20 years just to some day play this role, as sad as that sounds. He approaches the movie the way Robert De Niro or Daniel Day-Lewis might play Dracula's sniveling assistant Renfield; his Willard makes Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates seem extroverted. I can't imagine anyone at New Line asking him twice to attend the premiere after-party.

He makes the original Willard (a young Bruce Davidson, seen here as the portrait of Willard's dead father; a nice touch) seem more of a drip, a sad sack. Glover so totally internalizes the part of the friendless outsider that one can only cringe at how heartfelt he seems. He gives a method performance in a disposable horror quickie no one cares about, and that's even harder to take.

Your heart breaks for Glover, the actor: when he smiles you want him to keep smiling, when he finds a white rat and names him Socrates, you see how gentle he can be. You don't seem to be watching a performance so much as a genuine loose cannon performing in a stupid movie, and this reads in the other actor's faces and provides the only real tension in Willard. Stick around for the closing credits: Crispin Glover even sings a cover of Michael Jackson's Academy Award-winning title track from Ben. Somewhere in Never-Never Land Valley, it's fun to imagine, Wacko Jacko is listening, and he just turned to Blanket, his son, and asked: β€œIs this guy for real?”



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