Set in the heart of suburbia this dour and listless tale revolves around the dark soul of the humorless Henry Poole (Luke Wilson)--a man whose life has careened out of control. Looking for reinvigoration he returns to the bland suburban neighborhood of his youth hoping it will turn his mojo around and give him solitary comfort and peace. He buys a house for full price and tries to settle in but his hopes to be left alone are dashed by three female neighbors. First is a nosy woman Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) who is convinced she sees the stucco image of Christ on the side of his house. Then there’s the solemn 8 year-old Millie (Morgan Lily) who has taken a complete vow of silence since the divorce of her parents. Finally there is her mother Dawn (Radha Mitchell) who tries to reignite a passion in Henry. As crowds drawn by the Christ-like image begin to mushroom in his backyard--including a priest (George Lopez) who tries to counsel him--Henry is diagnosed with a terminal illness making him question his own faith in God and the quality of his life.
Luke Wilson fails to convince as the soulless Henry Poole a self-absorbed man throwing his own pity party. He’s so anti-social and morose through most of the film that the audience has a tough time connecting with his plight even as his life is threatened. Blame the script or Wilson himself for making Poole such an unattractive stick-in-the-mud. Young Lily as the near-autistic child next door plays it with mystical abandon but the role seems contrived. The normally reliable Mitchell doesn’t have a clue where her character seems to be going and fails to tap into her true emotional register. Lopez normally an upbeat comedic presence in films and TV plays it low-key here effective but forgettable. Stealing the film is Barraza the wonderful Oscar-nominated Mexican actress from Babel who lifts the tempo considerably every time she is onscreen. She gets the intended spirit of the material and delivers line readings in a completely convincing and fresh manner. Her belief in Esperanza’s own off-the-wall beliefs brings us to her side.Too bad everyone else seems to be in another picture. Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) can’t really locate a pulse in Albert Torres first-produced screenplay. Pellington approaches the story meant to be uplifting and inspiring in a slow-handed way--letting any chance for real dramatic sparks to fade away. Small human character studies like this need more invention in the telling to make up the lack of pizzazz inherent in the premise. What he does achieve nicely is the look and feel and a ‘40s or ‘50s-style middle class Southern California neighborhood lit by the bright sun but lacking in any kind of style or personality. When the figure of Christ is spotted on a non-descript wall of stucco it’s the first time this street has ever come to life. That works but the whole point of the story--the deeply religious spiritual underpinnings--don’t quite come across the way the director and screenwriter intended. Henry Poole Is Here remains ultimately a failure--a noble effort but misguided and largely bloodless.
Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.
A truck carrying hazardous materials accidentally drops one of its containers into a small lake contaminating it and its delicate ecosystem. Trouble arises when the wacky town entomologist feeds his collection of exotic spiders contaminated crickets which act as a sort of spider "steroid." The result is a horde of giant hairy spiders that prey on the town's unsuspecting inhabitants. Sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer) doesn't believe her son Mike (Scott Terra) when he tries to warn her about what's going on but blames his "media-induced paranoid delusional nightmare" on too much boob-tube watching. Then when mining engineer Chris McCormick's (David Arquette) aunt gets spun--literally--into one of the spider's webs he enlists the help of Sheriff Parker and paranoid radio announcer Harlan Griffin (Doug E. Doug) to fight off the eight-legged freaks. Armed only with rakes ski poles and chainsaws the townspeople fight off the spiders in a losing battle before Chris comes up with a master plan that will blow the arachnids to smithereens.
Prankster Arquette (See Spot Run) tones down his funnyman routine in Eight Legged Freaks and takes on the role of the humble hero. It's refreshing to see Arquette playing a more subdued character with less of a slapstick edge although I half expected him to start yelling at people to "dial straight down the center." As the sheriff Wuhrer (Berserker) plays her dual role well as a headstrong single mother of two and the town leader. Sure she looks a little too hot to be a chief law enforcement officer but maybe some sheriffs really do look like that in small-town America. While the laughs may not have been coming from Arquette there were enough to be had thanks to Doug whose most memorable role to date has to be Sanka Coffie from the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings. His radio announcer in this film believes the government is conspiratorial and that the spiders are the alien invasion he has been warning people about for decades. Doug delivers some of the movie's funniest lines.
New Zealander Ellory Elkayem (Larger Than Life) wrote and directed Eight Legged Freaks a sort of homage to mid-1950s B-movie sci-fi thrillers like Tarantula or Earth vs. the Spider. But while these cult films were funny merely by accident--Tarantula director Jack Arnold probably wasn't being intentionally campy--Eight Legged Freaks at times seems to try too hard. Packing in one joke after another takes away from the spiders' scariness making them seem more like a practical joke than a potentially annihilating threat. The special effects are extremely slick however and the spiders are well done with techniques approaching those in the 1997 sci-fi actioner Starship Troopers (but none of the gigantic CGI spiders are as scary as the real-life tarantulas caged up in terrariums at the start of the movie). Although at 99 minutes the film moves quickly the final scene in which the townspeople are being chased through a labyrinth of mining tunnels drags on a bit too long.