There’s always been something removed and artificial about John C. Reilly’s acting; he has a comedian’s instinct for deliberate self-presentation, rather than a tendency to disappear into his roles. That doesn’t seem to have held him back, though, both because he’s generally soulful and genial, and because he’s authentically funny. That, and he often winds up in roles specifically suited to his style. Certainly that calculated posing is the best part of the otherwise middling Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, the would-be franchise-starter for a series of adaptations of Darren Shan’s 12-book saga about a newbie vampire. The kids’ movie plays like cut-rate Tim Burton, with a lot of striking color and cartoonishly gleeful morbidity, but Reilly imparts his role with a hilariously dry ennui that enlivens the action considerably.
Looking much younger than his 17 years, Chris Massoglia plays the protagonist, a spider-obsessed good-guy type accustomed to meekly following in the footsteps of his edgier buddy, Josh Hutcherson. When both teenagers sneak off to an unlicensed freakshow run by an eerily distorted Ken Watanabe—and featuring Salma Hayek, Orlando Jones, Patrick Fugit, Frankie Faison, and Kristen Schaal, among others—they run afoul of Reilly, a 200-year-old vampire with an agenda. Before long, he’s turned Massoglia into a “half-vampire,” and involved him in a developing war between the evil, kill-happy “Vampaneze” and murder-averse moral vamps like Reilly and his old friend Willem Dafoe, who appears to be channeling John Waters at his feyest. (Incidentally, it’s impossible to hear them talk about Vampaneze without thinking of Pekingese, which hardly sets the right terrifying tone.)
Nothing in Cirque Du Freak has much weight or impact; it all plays out like prelude, a bunch of stagy business manufactured to get the players in place for the real story. Naturally Massoglia and Hutcherson end up on opposite sides of the battle, and an awful lot of tedious development has to go into provoking Massoglia to man up and fight back enough to create actual conflict. And naturally, nothing’s resolved in this film. It’s an agreeable enough example of soft children’s horror-adventure, made more bearable by Reilly’s wry, continental weariness, and by Michael Cerveris as a fat-suited baddie who purrs his way through every evil scheme. Actually, by way of a sequel, the filmmakers could just set Cerveris, Dafoe, and Reilly up for a purr-off. That’d be more fun than most of this film.