Review: ‘Willfull’

Anna Lise Phillips

Ill-conceived from the get-go, "WillFull" gets more excruciating as it moves along -- glacially, but with an increasingly forced barrage of "comic" effects. Plight of a young woman haunted by her mother's glib ghost might have played better as a nightmare; it would certainly give bad dreams to any distribbery willing to risk importing this Down Under no-hoper.

Ill-conceived from the get-go, “WillFull” gets more excruciating as it moves along — glacially, but with an increasingly forced barrage of “comic” effects. Plight of a young woman haunted by her mother’s glib ghost might have played better as a nightmare; it would certainly give bad dreams to any distribbery willing to risk importing this Down Under no-hoper.

Pic is classic in one way: as an example of how wrong things can be when designing product for the U.S. market. Casting of C. Thomas Howell as Nat Wolff, a Tony Robbins-type motivational speaker, is presumably intended to give things international currency. And splashy start in Singapore, with true believers walking over hot coals as nicely percussive music burbles away, gets things going with a bang. But Howell’s character, a seeming variation on Tom Cruise’s “Magnolia” hustler, is boringly reduced to a slick nice guy baffled by his Aussie g.f.’s crisis after her mother dies.

Nat’s baffled mostly because he can’t see what Catherine (played by Anna Lise Phillips, a Kerry Fox look-alike possessing a single, startled expression) can see: that Mom is back from the grave and still telling her what to do! As handled by helmer Rebel Penfold-Russell, who exec-produced “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” the supposedly bohemian mom (Anne Looby) comes across as a Cruella De Ville in ’50s Vogue fashions — weird when the script keeps telling us what a New Age free spirit she was. Standard device of making this meddling apparition visible only to one person (and us) leads to the usual mishaps.

Veteran thesps “Bud” Tingwell and John Gaden, as parts of the dead woman’s extended family, do their best to liven things up, but they’re only given dull sitcom material. Nicki Wendt, using a fake accent as Nat’s shrewish assistant, is just another shrill presence in a repetitive parade of empty irritations.

Naturally, when Catherine comes to accept Mom’s ministrations from beyond the grave, she’s allowed TV-movie closure. But since pic-makers have failed to invest her with any personal interests, it’s hard to care what happens to her, haunted or not.

Exteriors are brightly colored and vibrant, while stage sets are merely fussily decorated.

Flashbacks with Ellesha Dobbs as childhood Catherine go nowhere, but are beautifully lit and shot — almost as if they’re from another movie.

Willfull

Australia

Production

A Latent Image Prods. (Sydney) production. Produced by Vicki Watson. Executive producer, Sheridan Jobbins. Directed by Rebel Penfold-Russell. Screenplay, Harry Cripps.

Crew

Camera (color), Steve Arnold; editor, Nicholas Beauman; music, Antony Partos; production, costume designer, George Liddle; art director, Richard Hobbs; set decorator, Marta McElroy; associate producer, Stephen Elliott; assistant director, Jamie Crooks. Reviewed on videocassette at Seattle Film Festival, June 16, 2001. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Anna Lise Phillips, Anne Looby, C. Thomas Howell, Charles "Bud" Tingwell, John Gaden, Jennifer Claire, Ellesha Dobbs, Felix Williamson, Chris Stollery, Ted Cahill, Ken Cameron, Charlie Hooke, Nick Atkinson, Nicki Wendt.
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