Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4
Hollywood has sometimes had great fun setting up mousy office
workers for laughs (think Amanda Plummer) but with "Willard,"
director Glen Morgan goes a step further by establishing a mousy
office worker for death. Since the creature's name is Socrates
students of Philosophy 101 will proudly predict an untimely death
(in this case for corrupting a place of business rather than the
Athenian state), and wouldn't you know that his death would stir
up more groans and cries of sympathy in the audience than would
emerge from the demise of his executioner!
"Willard" is a glitzy remake of the 1971 movie starring Bruce
Davison as the title character, a man who is friendless and lonely
with a domineering mother and a boss from hel. Director Morgan,
having received the rights to Gilbert Ralston's novel after an eight-
months' legal struggle, gives the moviegoing public a surprisingly
potent, darkly comic fable that could be called The Revenge of the
Nerd. Just as no one but Bruce Willis could have done justice to
the role of Lt. A.K. Waters in Antoine Fuqua's "Tears of the Sun,"
only Crispin Glover has the ideal sinister look of a psycho who
barely represses his justifiable violence until his humiliating boss
makes the fatal misstep of firing him.
Whereas the 1971 version, based as well on Stephen Gilbert's
"Ratman's Notebooks," was so wispy that it could have fit on the
stage of one of New York's shoddier off-off Broadway houses, this
time around "Willard" gets the full Hollywood treatment with
hundreds of computer-generated rats joining Willard's best friend,
a white mouse, and its darker, larger second cousin Ben. Here is
a tale of alienation, humiliation and revenge which is sly, only
slightly campy, and surprisingly engrossing throughout. What
puts this tale above the gross-out adolescent horror pics is that
the campiness is properly toned down, the slice-and-dice
convention is virtually absent, and Glover is next to amazing in a
role that he was born to play.
Watching Crispin Glover as the title character working in a
funereal suit day after day (while others are dressed casually as
would be more appropriate in the dismal spaces of a
manufacturing plant) recalls the actor in a thinner role recently as
Bartleby based on the Herman Melville novella and often played
by small theatrical groups. Whereas Bartleby would "prefer not
to" each time the boss asks him to do something, Willard
desperately needs to hold on to his job preparing purchase orders
for the plant now being run by Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey) since
Martin's partner and Willard's father had died. Because Willard's
mother, Henrietta Stiles (Jackie Burroughs with so many wrinkles
she could be used as a "before" shot in a Botox ad), is ill, Willard
must take special care of her and is often late to work. Poorly
treated by the boss who cannot fire him because of a contract the
employer made with Willard's father Willard is eager for revenge
and, having discovered a basement loaded with rats that breed
faster than rabbits, he trains the creatures in preparation for their
use as hit rats.
Each of the principals stands out for a distinct personality.
Laura Elena Harring (the bombshell brunette from "Mulholland
Drive"?) is the caring, sympathetic co-worker who tries to befriend
the unhappy Willard against the machinations of the angry
boss played well by R. Lee Ermey, who in one scene reaches
distractedly for his computer mouse and ends up holding a real
one. Jackie Burroughs is the mother that only a son could love,
with the face of a Shar-Pei, who badgers her son so much to find
a girl friend (which is the last thing she really wants him to do)
that Willard doesn't know whether to help tuck a pillow under her
head or press it down over it.
"Willard" is a horror movie that properly downplays the
traditional horror aspects (the rats are not all that scary) but
instead does the right thing in punctuating the unusual character
of its title figure, with the rodents serving principally as a metaphor
for the man's inner turmoil.
Copyright © 2003 Harvey Karten