“Case 39” has an interesting story behind it. Not in it, behind it. The story in it is stupid. The story behind it is interesting in that the movie was made in 2006, but then it fell behind a desk or something and didn’t get released until 2009, whereupon it played in every other country on Earth before finally hitting American theaters in 2010, whereupon nobody noticed it and the people who did notice it just pointed and laughed.
Hmm. I take it back. There are no interesting stories associated with “Case 39.” Sorry!
This supposed thriller stars Renee Zellweger, whom the filmmakers were lucky enough to get during the brief period of time between the conclusion of her work on the second Bridget Jones movie and the commencement of her work on trying to get someone to please make a third Bridget Jones movie. She plays Emily Jenkins, an exhausted child services worker who’s already handling 38 cases when her boss gives her another one. NOW SHE HAS 39, GET IT??
The new case concerns a 10-year-old girl named Lily (Jodelle Ferland) who has become withdrawn and unproductive at school, leading her teachers to fear neglect in the home. Sure enough, when Emily stops by to visit, Lily’s bleary-eyed white-trash parents, Margaret (Kerry O’Malley) and Edward (Callum Keith Rennie), are uncooperative and hostile. Edward won’t even speak to Emily, that’s how belligerent and/or angry about “Cold Mountain” he is.
But there’s nothing specific for Emily to act on. As her boss says, “It’s not against the law to be weird.” (Oh, if only!) Lily tells Emily privately that she overheard her parents saying they were going to “send me to hell,” but she clams up when asked to repeat this to Emily’s supervisor. You know how kids are (chicken).
So we’re thinking this will be a grim story about cruel, awful parents, and about Emily’s valiant efforts to rescue the poor girl despite the bureaucracy and red tape of The System. Fine with us! We enjoy a good squinty-eyed-crusader-against-injustice story as much as the next person. We’re expecting things to unfold gradually over the course of 90 minutes, though, so we’re surprised, and maybe even slightly impressed, when in the very next scene Lily’s parents put her in the oven. Just straight-up try to cook her, like fairy tale witches! We admit we did not see that coming.
But Lily managed to call Emily before Mom and Dad went all Julia Child on their child, and Emily and her cop friend, Mike (Ian McShane), arrive just in time to save her. “What the hell is wrong with you people?!” Mike yells. You can’t just shove your kid in an oven and turn it on! You have to preheat it first.
With her parents in jail on charges of child abuse, attempted murder, and any number of health code violations, Lily is going to be put in foster care, but she wants to come live with Emily. (Emily did not offer, by the way. Lily’s being pushy.) The child welfare people basically say, “No, no, that’s not allowed, that’s not possible, it’s against protocol, that’s not how we do things, we can’t just– OK, fine, she all yours.” They are able to push the paperwork through by exploiting a loophole in the Punky Brewster Act of 1984.
After wasting a lot of time not getting to the point, the movie now finally gets to the point: this isn’t a story about evil parents; it’s about an evil kid! Lily is the devil, or whatever! Her parents were right to try to kill her. This suits us just fine, as we prefer to blame children for everything anyway. Kids, always listen to your parents. If they say you’re the devil, you’re the devil.
Now the film shifts into the phase where Lily acts spooky and does creepy things and all the adults are really, really slow to figure out she’s Satan, and the ones who do figure it out can’t get anyone to believe them before she causes their deaths. This is the standard procedure for Evil Kid movies, though I would love to see one where the whole town realizes the kid is a monster in the first 10 minutes and the rest of the movie is just scene after scene of angry mobs trying to kill her.
Did I mention Bradley Cooper is in this? Or that a swarm of hornets bursts out of his head? My bad. I should have mentioned both of those things. Especially the second one. In fact, all advertising for this movie should say, “Featuring a swarm of hornets bursting out of Bradley Cooper’s head!”
He plays Doug, a child psychologist friend of Emily’s who wants to be more than friends. (I think the thing about this movie that I have the hardest time accepting is that all these people want to be close to Renee Zellweger.) Lily freaks Doug out by asking what he’s afraid of, and he says hornets — childhood trauma, long story — and so that night, Lily uses her Lucifer powers to make him think hornets are coming out of his ears, nose, mouth, and eyes. Every orifice above the neck has hornets popping out of it. He thrashes around madly in his bathroom, trying to escape the hornets, and in the process smashes through the glass shower door, knocks the sink off its base, and snaps his neck on the edge of the bathtub. The police, I am not making this up, call it a suicide.
Emily, not exactly cut out to be a mother anyway, and especially not to a demon, panics when she realizes she has a monster living with her. (“Welcome to the club!” say all parents.) She can’t just kill her, though. For one thing, you are not supposed to murder children, no matter how sure you are that they are demon-spawn. For another thing, Lily can read people’s thoughts sometimes (i.e., when the movie needs her to), so it’s hard to surprise her. Unable to act, Emily removes all possible weapons from the house, save one kitchen knife that she puts under a couch cushion, the handle sticking out ominously in order to provide a few seconds of “WILL LILY SEE IT????” suspense. Lily doesn’t see it — whew! — and Emily resolves to improve her weapon-hiding skills.
I won’t tell you how the movie ends, except to say that it’s not soon enough. Some movies about Evil Kids keep things ambiguous, which is fine, and some tell us in no uncertain terms that YES, this child is evil. That is also fine. What is not fine is to misdirect us for a half hour, then reveal the truth about the kid, and then continue to wander around aimlessly, even if you do pause occasionally to make hornets fly out of Bradley Cooper’s skull. Once we know the kid’s evil, we want to see some EVIL, dammit! A lot of it! Is that too much to ask? This thing is half-baked. (Too soon?)