Movie Review: “Case 39″

“This girl is in trouble,” Renee Zellweger’s character declares in “Case 39,” her first horror movie in 16 years. “I can FEEL it.”

As can we all. Zellweger, at 41 is not really someone we’d call “girl” anymore. But she seems to be in trouble herself. Her career is, for all intents and purposes, in full regression with this generic supernatural thriller. A fine actress with an Academy Award, you’d think she would be far removed from playing a social worker trying to figure out if this creepy kid she’s saved from abusive parents was the one who needed saving.

Emily Jenkins (Zellweger) is a career case worker with child social services in Portland, Oregon — someone who has learned the patience of one who who endures daily cursing on the phone by parents whose kids have been identified by “the system” as in trouble. She is so committed to the work that she can’t really maintain a relationship, even with a guy played by Bradley Cooper.

And she’s developed instincts she can call on when the system is about to let somebody down. Mike (Ian McShane) is a sympathetic cop who has, on occasion, watched a house where Emily suspects a child is endangered.

Lily (Jodelle Ferland) is such a child — fearful, grades tumbling in school. And on meeting her frightening and angry parents (Kerry O’Malley, Callum Keith Rennie) alarm bells go off.  Emily isn’t shocked when the child calls her at home and she has to dash across town to save the kid from religious fanatics stuffing the kid in the oven.

But after that rescue of this precocious kid, Emily starts to see things that make her wonder just who or what this child is, and why people around her keep dying.

That break-down-the-door moment, quite early in “Pandorum” director Christan Alvart’s thriller, is the high water mark in a movie that spirals into  cheap jolts that don’t work (alarm clocks interrupting the silence, dogs leaping out of the shadows at the camera) and special effects that you can see on any given weekend, thanks to Hollywood’s love of the loyal horror film audience.

Zellweger, forced to play a character who lurches from rational to absurdly credulous, loses credibility by the minute. Scene by scene she’s fine, but there’s nothing worse than a performance you don’t believe because you sense the performer doesn’t believe. And McShane, whose character also must intellectually turn on a dime — is even worse off.

As Lily, Jodelle Ferland is far better at suggesting some inner cruelty and bad intent than the smarmy innocent she shows to the social service adults.  Frankly, “Orphan” did a better job of this bad-good girl thing, and did it without that M. Night Shyamalan-style supernatural/religious subtext that seems to justify every nutcase who claims he needs to murder his own child.

But it’s only a movie, and not a remotely effective one. And for Zellweger, whose “Miss Potter” and “Appaloosa” were barely seen, with “Leatherheads” and “New in Town” further deflating her A-list clout, that’s the real shame here.

 

Cast: Renee Zellweger, Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper, Jodelle Ferland

Director: Christian Alvart

Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes

Industry rating: R for violence and terror including disturbing images.

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