When you see as many movies in the theater as I do, it’s easy to see a trailer for a film dozens of times before it’s release. I’d been skeptical about The House with a Clock in the Walls (2018), but I was ultimately hopeful. Unfortunately, Clock felt like it wanted to be dozens of better films and books that have come before it. By the film’s end, it became apparent that Eli Roth’s new feature is only slightly better than his other 2018 entry, Death Wish.
The House with a Clock in the Walls really grinds my gears…
Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) has recently become orphaned and has been sent to live with his mysterious Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). Lewis discovers that his Uncle is magical, as is his best friend and neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) – and they have a secret about the house he’s now living in. Somewhere, hidden within the walls, is a clock that is counting down to the end of the world.
Jack Black tends to do some of his best work in kid-friendly movies, but his best efforts aren’t enough to make this a film worthy of your time. He is engaging and clearly tries to make Clock one of those movies that, despite weak storytelling, will have enough enthusiasm to charm its way into your heart. Perhaps I’d had a witches hex cast on my heart here, as his attempts were thwarted, and the many story pieces either felt too cliche or unearned.
Blanchett’s performance was closer to achieving the goal mentioned previously. Her character by far has the most fascinating backstory, though it’s barely given any screen time. Blanchett’s subtleties convey the requisite emotional pieces to build the pathos needed. She and Black play off each other very well and do have some scenes that audiences will find likable. However, not all of the performances were as strong.
Vaccaro is given much to do in this movie, and it seems as if it’s not quite time for him to be the leading man. There are times where what he is doing works just fine, but the moments that hinge on his performance do not work. When he’s called upon to show any real emotion, he is unable to deliver any convincingly, and it definitely takes you out of the movie. Placing him up against Sunny Suljic as the cool kid at school was probably ill-advised. Sunny has proven himself to be a strong lead child actor in Killing of a Sacred Deer and the upcoming Mid90s. Though Vaccaro doesn’t nail all of his moments, he’s still not the biggest issue in the film.
The House with a Clock in its Walls is a story with an abundance of holes in its plot. I’m not opposed to familiar concepts or structures being used as a foundation to build a character. History repeats itself so, it’s only to be expected that events from one story may show up in another. Clock feels like it wants Lewis to be three or four other young fictional protagonists, but it could never quite settle on which one. Will Lewis be the magical chosen one like Harry Potter? Is the evil warlock who built the clock inexplicably linked to Lewis in some way? The movie hints at these and other possibilities…some which never develop into anything, and others that were clearly red herrings. Posing mysteries that aren’t really there does not inherently make for a good story.
By the film’s end, none of the magical charms or dog-like chairs could cast its spell over me. I was left longing for Black’s Goosebumps film. At least that film was fun, and it knew what it was trying to do – but Eli Roth’s film seems like it earnestly wanted to be great, and just wasn’t. During my experience with this film, I was reminded of those early episodes of American Idol where they show the hopeful but often talentless singers who give it their all, only to have their dreams dashed by the harsh judges. The House with a Clock in its Walls earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.