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Review: “Fido” (2006)

“I’d say I’m a pretty darn good father. My father tried to eat me; I don’t remember trying to eat Timmy.” ~~Bill Robinson

How would 1950s America deal with zombies? How would humankind stave off a zombie apocalypse? Could zombie milkmen ever learn not to throw the milk bottles at doorsteps? Those are questions no self-respecting zombie film ever raised. Canadian director Andrew Currie remedies that with “Fido,” a curious, entertaining mix of ’50s nostalgia and satire, zombie gore and unabashedly morbid humor that sputters to an unfortunate finish.

In Currie’s mad, mad world, space radiation has reanimated the dead, resulting in the Zombie Wars, with humans emerging as the victors. Special burials are created to keep the dead from escaping their coffins. Conglomerate Zomcom has fenced in the remaining zombies, using some — domesticated with electric collars — to work in public service. Owning a zombie has become the ultimate status marker in the small suburb of Willard (a nod to “Night of the Living Dead,” no doubt). Worried about image, Helen Robinson (Carrie-Anne Moss) can’t resist buying a zombie (Billy Connolly) to act as the household’s undead Mr. Belvedere. Her uptight husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is horrified, but the couple’s lonely son Timmy (Kesun Loder) becomes attached to the walking corpse. He names him Fido, teaches him to play catch and even lets Fido off his leash — which leads to a small zombie outbreak Timmy tries unsuccessfully to cover up. This is where the comedy turns especially wicked; the image of a sweet-faced boy burying the severed head of his zombiefied neighbor in a flower bed, for example, is not for those who prefer light-hearted knock-knock jokes. Not to mention the matter of cheerful oddball Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson, underplaying marvelously), Timmy’s neighbor whose interest in his hot-bodied blonde zombie Tammy (Sonja Barrett) takes necrophilia to a whole new level. 

Black comedy aside, Timmy and Fido’s friendship is the real heart of “Fido,” thanks to Connolly’s funny and sometimes stirring performance. The Scottish comedian has no lines, only various grunts, snarls and groans, but his expressive face and good-natured (if gory) protectiveness of the Robinsons are terrific. Also spot-on is Connolly’s stumbling, stiff movements and posture. Still, despite being a literal zombie, Fido’s more affectionate toward Timmy and Helen than Bill, who’s sour-faced and believes emotions should be squashed. (Baker has a peculiar gift for communicating emotional constipation; see 1998’s “Happiness.”) Jonathan Bottoms (Henry Czerny) shares this philosophy and applies it to his work as Zomcom security chief and his family, mostly ignoring his sharp-shooter daughter (Alexia Fast). Much of Willard’s population, in fact, can be divided into people who appreciate the zombies’ humanity (what’s left of it) and those who treat them as chattel. That Currie even touches on this concept — the idea that zombies can relearn normal human behaviors and emotions, or tap into their former selves — is proof he’s not afraid to monkey with tradition. In “Fido,” zombies are not ravenous, emotionless moving targets. They have become the oppressed.

It’s unfortunate that “Fido” can’t quite sustain its early madcap momentum to the end. Or maybe there’s simply no way Currie could extend such a colorful, out-there premise into a 90-minute feature film. Either way, the final act of “Fido” is rather disappointing, though it does give Baker the chance to play action hero for a few frames. The less interesting characters, like the too-broadly-written Mr. Bottoms and the too-mean bullies that torment Timmy, eat up valuable screen time, while the more intriguing crackpots (Mr. Theopolis takes the cake) are left undeveloped. Baker, being the superb character actor that he is, makes the best of Bill, whose traumatic past is merely hinted at. But until its limping conclusion, “Fido” is full of cheek and energy and a few standout performances. Moss makes Helen more than a prototype of the bored ’50s housewife; she finds some earnest loneliness in there that we see mirrored in Timmy. Connolly, though, is the real treat. Who knew a zombie could carry an entire movie? Blame Canada.

Grade: B-

No. 32: “Happiness” (1998)

“I wake up happy, feeling good … but then I get very depressed because I’m living in reality.” ~~Bill Maplewood

When you think about it, there aren’t that many kinds of happiness. How different, really, is one upbeat, bouncing happy person from another? They aren’t. The reasons for happiness vary, naturally, but happiness itself, as a state of being, is … indistinct, generic. Miserable people, on the other hand, are like snowflakes. There are thousands, probably millions, of ways to be unhappy. In essence, happiness makes us common; misery makes us unique.

Such is the way that director Todd Solondz, an odd, dark little man with an odd, dark little vision, sees the world, and such is the way he paints that world in “Happiness,” an ensemble drama so uncomfortably funny that it belongs in a class of its own. Contrary to the film’s title (is that sarcasm, Mr. Solondz?), none of the people in this world are happy. “Happiness,” set in New Jersey, is a veritable geyser of melancholy. Everyone deals with that unhappiness in different ways. Some, like smug stay-at-home mom Trish (the perpetually overlooked comedic genuis Cynthia Stevenson) and her aimless sister Joy (Jane Adams), labor so hard to project an air of contentment that they almost fool themselves. Others, like shy loser Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Trish’s husband Bill (the phenomenal Dylan Baker), funnel their sadness into juvenile, illegal and immoral hobbies. And some, like Trish’s mom Mona (Louise Lasser), watching her marriage dissentegrate, just weep to the lady at the condo rental office, who tells Mona “divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Coming from a lithe, blue-eyed blonde with up-to-there legs, that’s almost insulting.

On and on the misery merry-go-round goes. You’ve got to wait your turn to hop on; this ride is full. Trish’s sisters Joy (Jane Adams), a broke wannabe musician, and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a successful author who kept her New Jersey apartment because she loves “living in a state of irony,” find themselves grasping at relief — usually in the form of any male attention — from the tedium of life. Their father Lenny (Ben Gazzara) has 86’d his 40-year marriage to Mona because he “needs space”; for what he’s not quite sure, since he’s “in love with no one.” One of the saddest characters of all is Kristina (Camryn Manheim), Allen’s frumpy neighbor who finds him in a drunken stupor and resorts to caressing his face to get human contact. There’s an elegant sadness to this scene, the kind that threatens to knot up in your stomach, because we know Kristina. She works with us or rides the subway with us or lives in our building.

Right. So the rotten core of “Happiness” has been established. Why should anyone pick up this strange and disturbing film, let alone weather the full 140 minutes of loneliness and rejection and repressed anger? That all depends on the viewer’s threshold for boundary-pushing subject matter. Solondz’s treatment of children, for example, is questionable. They are not respected or treated with particular kindness; to be blunt, they are objects passed around by adults, used as needed and then discarded rather cruelly, or dismissed altogether. The toughest subplot involves Bill’s growing inability to repress his pedophilia, then a truly shocking, core-rocking scene where he hatches a plot to give in to his urges. Solondz does not write him as a monster but as a man held hostage by his perverse desires. Baker plays him as such, proving he has the talent to do the unthinkable: humanize a pedophile.

Solondz takes similar risks in his grimly comic script (if you like your humor icky/grim), like crafting a joltingly honest sex talk between Bill and son Timmy (Justin Elvin) or Helen admitting that she’s “so tired of being admired all the time.” Solondz makes no bones about the fact that his film is a shock-and-awe campaign, that he will not capsule-up this bitter pill to make it go down smoother. This makes him an uncommon director who’s either reprehensible or commendable for refusing to water down his vision. Question his morals if you want, but you can’t question his gumption. He takes chances few others touch.