People’s everyday fears threaten the fabric of civilized society in the genially quirky but strained Canadian comedy “A Problem With Fear.” Alberta-based helmer Gary Burns’ follow-up to his equally distinctive “waydowntown” mines many of the same comedic shafts of urban paranoia, but obvious script and more ambitious tech package expose fundamental thinness of conceit. Nevertheless, previous pic did modest biz on critical huzzahs Stateside, which could pave the way for an arthouse appearance and some finite shelf life for this problematic production.
In a vaguely futuristic Calgary, Laurie Harding (Paulo Costanzo) clerks at a convenience store in one of those monstrous, networked series of enclosed, mixed-use malls that are the hallmark of Canadian urban centers. Phobic in the extreme, Laurie is afraid of everything from public conveyances to spaghetti dinners. (Well, red sauce meals, anyway.)
The neurotic twentysomething is so spooked that he’s escorted to work by his sister Michelle and shepherded home by g.f. Dot (Emily Hampshire).
To combat her brother’s wariness, Michelle has given him a prototype of Global Security’s much-publicized “Early Warning 2 Safety System” bracelet, which promises to protect the citizenry against everything from armed robberies to train derailments. When people begin to die as a result of his fears — hint: pic’s subtitle is “Laurie’s Anxiety Confronting the Escalator” — he must conquer his phobias and uncover the citywide “Fear Storm” plot set in motion by Global Security employee Erin (Willie Garson).
As with “waydowntown,” Burns and company are obviously in search of a Big Statement on the soul-sucking mix of monotony and terror inherent to modern life, and the script’s points are often well-made (if hammered home with some heaviness). Yet it’s difficult indeed to imagine any of these characters surviving for very long in a world free of civilization’s so-called discontents, so wrapped up are they in their own self-indulgent moods.
And for every genuinely funny social jape (a reality show featuring the “world’s worst SUV accidents”), there’s an equally unfunny misfire.
Having said that, Burns has a clear interest in — and feel for –intricate, multi-character social satire a la Jacques Tati and Robert Altman. What he needs is an original story of feature-length heft that refrains from the congratulatory self-consciousness found here.
Principal players are energetic, if mannered: Costanzo seems to hit the young Bill Murray irony vibe most of the time, while Hampshire’s perf is a symphony of attitudinal ticks; ironically, Garson is far more muted than his “Sex and the City” character Stanford Blatch.
Tech credits are pro, with John Abrams’ deliberately overheated score providing a melodramatic texture to Bulgarian d.p. Stefan Ivanov’s deft mix of 35mm, faked vid news reports and spoofy Global Security promo spots (created by Burns and editor deco dawson, who cut Guy Maddin’s acclaimed short “The Heart of the World”). Street-level material was shot in Calgary, with underground sequences filmed in the Montreal subway system.
“A Problem With Fear” has been invited to screen in the Panorama section of the 2004 Berlin Film Festival.