ODD THOMAS Review: The Quirk and the Dead
For as long as movies have dealt with death, denizens of the afterlife have been in movies, and those denizens have taken on every form imaginable – from angels good (Clarence from 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life) to angels bad (Gabriel from 1995’s The Prophecy), and from inanimate objects possessed by vile evil (the mirror in this year’s Oculus) to the usually listless, often lost souls looking for spiritual closure after physical closure has occurred (1999’s The Sixth Sense).
It’s this last group of afterlifers that has always intrigued me. Angels – regardless of intent – have already made it to where they’re going. Evil spirits have also made it – albeit in the opposite direction – or they simply don’t care and thrive only on chaos. But those wandering souls, whether looking for prayers or justice or a way to let go and move on – always garner my sympathy. It’s the bittersweet combination of faith that there is a life after this one coupled with the pathos of being stuck between this one and that one, I suppose. In Odd Thomas, there are a few restless dead that exist between the two worlds, as well as a whole lot of evil those restless dead know is coming.
The fine citizens of sleepy Pico Mundo, CA have a clairvoyant in their ranks and almost no one knows it. Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin) spends his days as a short-order cook, but in his free time he is visited by the purgatory-dwelling dead who lead him to clues that lead to their murderers. He then gives this information to friend and police chief Wyatt Porter (Willem Dafoe), who builds a plausible story around how the evidence was discovered and then uses that evidence to make arrests. Porter, along with Thomas’ girlfriend, Stormy Llewellyn (Addison Timlin), are the only two who know about the young man’s unique gift.
But as is often the case with blessings, sometimes curses come with them. In Thomas’ case, it’s his ability to see “bodachs”: nasty creepy spirits invisible to everyone else and are harbingers of impending evil. When the bodach population suddenly explodes, and when Thomas (and others) start dreaming that hundreds or thousands of townspeople will die, he needs all of his otherworldly skills, along with help from Porter and Llewellyn, to figure out exactly what’s coming and how to stop it.
If you are like I was before seeing this film (and being completely unaware of the Dean Koontz-authored source material), you probably think that the title character of this film has a name that sounds like it’s competing for shelf space with other adjective/name combinations like Dirty Harry or Cool Hand Luke. If you are like I was, you are wrong. “Odd” is the man’s actual first name, and it’s just one of the many quirky things that makes up Odd Thomas. Like Odd’s gift, though, this quirkiness is a blessing and a curse to the film, because for as much as it can be cute, at times it is so self-aware that it stops just short of breaking the fourth wall and winking at us. Odd has a quirky name; Stormy has a quirky name; Odd’s general behavior is quirky (something routinely mentioned by other characters, which gets old); Odd’s cooking practices are quirky; Odd and Stormy tool around town on a quirky little Vespa; Odd and Stormy have a picnic in a church steeple; Patton Oswalt makes a totally random cameo; and so on. While I was reminded of the wonderful (yet short-lived) TV show Pushing Daisies, that show committed hard to quirkiness and made it art; here, quirkiness is endearing-to-annoying.
In this quirky role, though, Yelchin is terrific. As a second-tier member of J.J. Abrams‘ Star Trek film franchise reboot, he has little to do but be that crew member that was also on the TV show. Here, he gets to play a lead character that is well-suited to his physical build and look. He’s agile but not overly athletic (an early sequence suggests he has fighting skills, but this is never developed), he’s cute but not – you know – cute-cute, and he is very convincing when it comes to how solemn and serious his character considers the deceased. As Odd, he also has a great and deep love for Stormy which, when they aren’t being a disgustingly cute and quirky couple, really shines. (Having great chemistry with Timlin goes a long way here.)
What really hamstrings the film, though, is the uneven execution by writer/director Stephen Sommers, whose credits include 2004’s Van Helsing and 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. As screenwriter, Sommers mines the source material to present a straight-forward story with just the right amount of late surprises, some sharp dialogue, and a sensational ending, yet manages to leave open enough glaring plot holes and undeveloped notions to undermine the whole thing – including one that occurs during that sensational ending. As director, his opening gambit to introduce Odd and his skills is fantastic – perfect parts flow of action, speed of film, and pace of narration. This film was a blind watch for me (read: I knew nothing about it other than what was written in the Netflix summary), but after that opening sequence, I was all in. Unfortunately, that open is where Sommers peaks; while he has briefer inspired moments (as well as some very clever scene transitions), for the rest of the film his direction isn’t bad, it’s just pedestrian, which is especially glaring given the subject matter.
Odd Thomas – which never saw a public US release and is presently available on Netflix – plays like the pilot of a prime time TV show. There is nothing offensive presented, some of the more violent action occurs offscreen or via obstructed views, there is a little gallows humor, it occasionally dips its visual toes into ever-so-slightly mature waters (a little gore, Timlin in her underwear, etc.), its characters and locations are memorable and intriguing enough to consider a return trip, and the epilogue leaves the door wide open for future installments. I wish it had been a TV pilot because it is far better suited to that media.
I don’t know that any future installments will ever happen (regardless of screen size), but if they don’t, this installment is just enough quirky fun while it lasts.