Isn’t it odd how movies with similar story lines tend to get released around the same time? For example, no one has gotten the urge to release another major motion picture with a volcano as its main antagonist since the Dante’s Peak/Volcano Battle of 1997. (Though that might have more to do with the fact that, my slight soft spot for Dante’s Peak notwithstanding, both those movies are terrible.) We’ve been treated to the Great Deep Impact/Armageddon Debate, dueling Truman Capote biopics and the upcoming Snow White Smackdown of 2012. In that same spirit, I’d like to unofficially — and belatedly — declare 2011 as the Year of Has Anyone Seen My Keys?
I’m assuming you’ve, at least, heard of Best Picture nominees Hugo — where the young protagonist needs a heart-shaped key to finish a project he and his late father started — and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which pulls somewhat of a reverse-Hugo by giving its young protagonist a key, courtesy of his own late father, but no lock. I’m also assuming, unless you have kids, you probably haven’t heard of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life.
Like Hugo, Jeremy Fink is based on a children’s novel — in this case, a 2006 book by Wendy Mass — and follows its titular hero as he tries to complete a project left behind by his dead dad. A month shy of his 13th birthday, Jeremy (Maxwell Beer) receives a mysterious wooden box with the words “The Meaning of Life: For Jeremy Fink to Open on his 13th Birthday.” The only problem is the box has four locks, and Jeremy has no idea where any of the keys are. With help from his best friend Lizzy (Ryan Simpkins), his supportive mom (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino) and an aggressively eccentric antique dealer named Mr. Oswald (Emmy winner Joe Pantoliano), Jeremy embarks on an adventure to find the keys and discover — you guessed it — the meaning of life.
Writer-director Tamar Halpern is no Martin Scorsese (then again, who is?!), but she incorporates some intriguing storytelling techniques — such as the lo-fi/animated opening-credits sequence style that gets repeated a couple of times during the movie — and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. (Seven minutes in, and Jeremy already has the box!) She also does admirable work coaxing a strong performance out of newcomer Beer, who successfully navigates some emotional scenes and infuses Jeremy with the insecurity and anxiousness boys his age often possess. I just wish Halpern had dedicated even half of that same energy to managing Simpkins’ performance as the abrasive, over-the-top Lizzy. I realize the tomboyish character is supposed to be a source of comic relief, but Simpkins’ line readings were often jarring and painful, and I’m going to move on now because I get no pleasure out of trashing a 13-year-old’s acting abilities.
When you have this type of family movie where young performers really drive the action, it’s important to have the right adult actors to alternately bring color and dramatic heft to their supporting roles. (At the very least as a life raft to the adults in the audience who might actually recognize them.) Unfortunately, Sorvino lets a kooky wardrobe (including an inexplicable fedora…WTH = Why the hat?) do most of the heavy lifting in her performance, while Pantoliano’s bananas performance makes Simpkins’ work look subdued by comparison. I can appreciate that movies told from child’s perspective often make grown-ups look like cartoon characters — adults really must seem like crazy people to kids — but watching Sorvino and Pantoliano mostly made me wonder if they brought their respective Oscar and Emmy on set to prove to people that they were, indeed, doing award-winning work at one point in their careers. At least Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) and Betsy Brandt (Breaking Bad) fare far better in their supporting roles.
Believe it or not, I’m willing to overlook a broad tone and questionable acting in a movie aimed at kids, if it has a worthwhile message that it delivers in an entertaining way. On that front, Jeremy Fink encourages all of us to live life to the fullest and make every moment meaningful. Unfortunately, that message is delivered in an exceedingly clumsy package. While working for Mr. Oswald, Jeremy and Lizzy meet several people, learn life lessons and (mostly) get distracted from their original mission until the rushed final act.
In my opinion, the best works of children’s fiction don’t talk down to their young audience and encourage them to use their imagination. The final five minutes of Jeremy Fink features a scene so blatantly expository that one character literally explains how and why everything that happened, happened. Early on, Jeremy’s mom tells him to “Look at things a different way and the answers will come.”
In the case of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life — a mildly diverting family offering that ends up muddling its important message — if you want answers, all you have to do is wait until the last few minutes and the movie will give them to you.