A Fantastic Fear of Everything feels like a film written by a person suffering from short-term memory loss. The film starts in one place, then suddenly jumps to another, and another, and another, continually forgetting about what happened in the previous section every step of the way. The film is so excited about the new developments it has just around the corner that it never bothers to think about how comfortably those developments will fit with the things the earlier scenes have established. Someone must have had a fantastic fear of script supervisors.
Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz) plays Jack Nife (yes, really), a successful author of children's books who has stubbornly turned his attention to grislier adult fare. He's in the process of creating a television series called Decades of Death, which will explore the lives of lesser-known Victorian Era serial killers. Unfortunately, the work takes a serious toll on his mental health: he begins seeing evidence of serial killers everywhere, and even starts to harbor his own murderous fantasies. He locks himself up in his house; jumping at shadows and waving a large kitchen knife around like a demented maniac. His agent (Claire Higgins, The Golden Compass) thinks he ought to get back to children's books, but Jack is determined to put that part of his literary career behind him – no matter the consequences.
The opening stretch of A Fantastic Fear of Everything feels like a one-act play – a single-player portrait of a man doing battle with his own imagination. The material is played for laughs, but never delivers them. Pegg's wild-eyed mugging and frantic slapstick work are admirably energetic, but he's performing in a vacuum – the film doesn't bother to contextualize this desperate paranoia, so it feels like we've just walked in on the third act of a weird, goofy horror film. So few of Jack's actions make any sense, even if we accept the basic premise of his situation: if Jack is so terrified of things that go bump in the night, why doesn't he start by turning the lights on?
This one-man show business concludes when Pegg is informed that he needs to attend a meeting with an American executive who's interested in producing his show. However, his Howard Hughes-like existence over the past few weeks means that all of his clothes are incredibly filthy. So, he has to go to the laundromat and get them cleaned. Alas, it turns out he also has a crippling fear of laundromats, the nature of which will be explained to us in laborious fashion via an extended flashback sequence. What? We've switched from the story of a man who is terrified that serial killers are out to get him to the story of a man whose greatest fear is doing his laundry in public? Sure, okay.
The laundromat sequence is probably the film's low point, spending what feels like an endless amount of time on a flat, lifeless joke (Jack is desperate to hide his dirty underwear from the women present in the laundromat) before completely abandoning the whole “guy who's afraid of everything” premise and turning the movie into a whimsical thriller (by “whimsical,” I mostly mean that there's a five-minute stop-motion fantasy sequence and a ridiculous villain who carries around a boombox playing Europe's “The Final Countdown” - disappointingly, the villain is not Gob Bluth). Once again, none of this feels even a little bit connected to the story we were watching just a few minutes earlier.
A Fantastic Fear of Everything is an immensely frustrating film, and that's partially because it feels like it's wasting some genuine virtues. The film was written and co-directed by Kula Shaker frontman Crispian Mills, who certainly seems to appreciate the virtue of a good soundtrack: Michael Price's playfully bombastic score gives many of the film's more theatrical scenes a Hammer horror vibe, and scenes containing songs by artists like Ice Cube and The Pretty Things turn into enjoyable self-contained music videos of sorts (though there is a painful bit in which we're forced to listen to one of Jack's clumsy, profane amateur rap numbers). He also has a strong sense of visual style, turning in a movie so handsome that it takes a while to accept the fact that it's ridiculously messy elsewhere.
Pegg does what he can with the role of Jack, but the character is too inconsistent to be salvaged. It's one of many odd career choices Pegg has made in recent years. He's been terrific when collaborating with Edgar Wright, and his buoyancy has brought a great deal to the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek films. Somehow, his indie star vehicles – while often admirably unconventional – have been almost uniformly terrible. Someone needs to help Pegg start finding projects that are better suited to his talent, because at the moment his film career looks an awful lot like Jack Nife's literary career.
A Fantastic Fear of Everything
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2012