In the same way that sarcasm, that handy, postmodern tool against the forces of evil, helped Buffy combat the Anne Rice romanticism of undead lore and ward off cheesy vampire overload for seven TV seasons, it now makes another comeback, just as bloodsuckers are returning in a big, brooding way.
John C. Reilly plays the ancient Larten Crepsley, one of the main attractions of the Cirque du Freak sideshow and the main attraction of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. Nearly two centuries of life on earth have left Crepsley cynical by default, making his employ of a teenage proxy, Darren (Massoglia), a chore in and of itself. Crepsley was happy with his bearded-lady girlfriend (Salma Hayek) and his exotic pet spider, but now that Darren’s meddled with one of those, Darren must make up for it by turning half-vampire and alienating his family and friends in the name of servitude.
Director Paul Weitz, adapting Darren Shan’s series of young adult novels with the help of Brian Helgeland, maintains a sense of freakish fun that harkens back to Barry Sonnenfeld’s playfully gothic Addams Family films and Weitz’ own coming-of-age work on American Pie and About a Boy more than the latest Twilight installment (directed, strangely enough, by Paul’s brother, Chris). Darren and his best-friend-turned-envious-foe, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), are understandably transfixed by the supernatural opportunities that the Cirque allows, and when things go awry, they react as any teen should – with a nice dollop of PG-13-worthy profanity.
In fact, Weitz almost has too much to work with when it comes to the freak show, to the point that some characters get shortchanged. Have you wondered where Orlando Jones went? Here he is, thin-waisted and barely there. Capable comediennes Jane Krakowski and Kristen Schaal are similarly scarce, and Willem Dafoe gets only a scene or two as Crepsley’s pal in immortality. Other than that, it’s down to ringleader Ken Watanabe, snake boy Patrick Fugit, monkey girl Jessica Carlson, and our thoroughly adequate every-teen lead to fend off the forces of evil, led by Michael Cerveris in a convincing fat suit and Ray Stevenson on a strict scene-chewing diet.
And let’s not forget about Reilly. As commonplace a character as any in the film, he matches the lavish production design with stubborn personality to spare. The nonchalant way in which he’ll snap a kid’s neck, the sardonic manner with which he so quickly retorts, all of this makes his inevitable transformation into reluctant protector that much easier to swallow. And when it becomes apparent the film’s climax exists only to hastily set up a potential franchise, his Crepsley proves to be the rooting interest above all others, making both the afterlife and any sequels to come equally appealing prospects.
— William Goss