Second directorial feature for prolific Canadian multihyphenate Don McKellar, makes tepid stabs at Hollywood satire, farce, poignancy and other approaches, sans coherent gameplan or moment-to-moment spark. Prospects for this seriocomedy about an A-list Hollywood brat going AWOL in Toronto look bleak. Exit to ancillary will be swift.

“Childstar,” second directorial feature for prolific Canadian multihyphenate Don McKellar, makes tepid stabs at Hollywood satire, farce, poignancy and other approaches, sans coherent gameplan or moment-to-moment spark. Given lack of significant marquee names, unlikely critical support, and mainstream auds’ usual indifference toward industry-navel-gazing pics, prospects for this seriocomedy about an A-list Hollywood brat going AWOL in Toronto look bleak. Exit to ancillary will be swift.

Canadian helmer’s prior effort, 1998’s “Last Night,” was an accomplished if overrated (in some quarters) ensemble piece that used an imminent, unexplained global apocalypse to focus on average citizens tying up their lives’ loose ends as best they could. There was something admirable — if a tad too deliberate — in upending viewer expectations by drawing something almost smaller-than-life from the most grandiose “high concept.”

McKellar isn’t the first to turn his sophomore session into a meditation on success and show biz — or even to put himself on-screen at its center. But fact that his own role is both the largest and most gratuitous gives a measure of how unfocused in intent and listless in execution “Childstar” is. Even as a simple instance of biting-the-hand-that-feeds, pic is oddly toothless. Ironically, multihyphenate has come up with a slick, arbitrary contraption that feels just as creatively compromised as the studio peplum he disdains.

Twelve-year-old Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall, who duly has that Culkin/Osment look) is a pubescent nightmare with big pull due to his hit sitcom “Family Differences.” Aware he’s “a biological time bomb … his voice could crack any day,” Los Angeles suits want to exploit Taylor ASAP. They fly him and his divorced mother Suzanne (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Canada for a bigscreen vehicle. He’ll play “The First Son,” rebellious only child to a U.S. President (Michael Murphy) held hostage by terrorists.

Just moments after he arrives, Taylor grinds production to a halt, his bickering over wardrobe exasperating director (Noam Jenkins), producer (Dave Foley) and agent (Peter Paige).

Mom goes to inspect their temporary house and promptly seduces driver Rick (McKellar), a film studies professor who’s quit that post to pursue making movies himself.An already tenuous situation gets much worse when the kid thesp goes missing. He’s spent the night partying with fellow cast member Chip (Brendan Fehr), the worst possible illustration of “former child star” as stereotypically druggy, drunken, immature adult. Chip sets the eager child up with a virginity-remover in the form of model-actress-wannabe Natalie (Kristin Adams).

This setup might have snowballed deliciously in a sort of pop-culture-skewing screwball farce a la Preston Sturges. McKellar (who co-wrote with Michael Goldbach) thwacks the expected targets, with clips from sitcom and action-pic-in-progress duly moronic, while the biz types at hand are variously callous, clueless and venal. But none of this is remotely inspired, in dialogue, situation or staging. And pic wobbles into misguided new directions — trying for “what he really needs is a loving family!” pathos one minute, edging toward fable terrain the next, introducing violent threat from a Mafioso-type superagent (Gil Bellows).

McKellar’s dour Rick is a tad too obviously helmer’s own alter ego, a lone stand-up guy who won’t take guff. But he also sells out without much complaint. Suggestion he might really care about Taylor and Suzanne is not just unconvincing, it raises the question “Why?” None of the characters here are appealing or are even memorably caricatured. (Foley has a few promising moments in the latter department.)

Apart from the improbably cheap CGI work in “First Son” excerpts, production is glossy-pro enough. Washed-out color palette in Andre Turpin’s lensing is just one more decision that seems deliberate yet counterproductive.

Childstar

Canada

Production

A TVA Films presentation of a Rhombus Media production in association with Telefilm Canada. Produced by Niv Fichman, Daniel Iron, Jennifer Jonas. Co-producers, Sheena Macdonald, Jennifer Weiss. Directed by Don McKellar. Screenplay, McKellar, Michael Goldbach.

Crew

Camera (color), Andre Turpin; editor, Reginald Harkema; music, Christopher Dedrick; music supervisor, Michael A. Perlmutter; production designer, John Dondertman; set decorator, Rosalie Board; costume designer, Debra Hanson; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Steve Munro; f/x supervisor, Tim Good; assistant director, David Manion; casting, John Buchan. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 10, 2004. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Rick Schiller - Don McKellar Taylor Brandon Burns - Mark Rendall Suzanne Burnbaum - Jennifer Jason Leigh Philip Templeman - Dave Foley Isaac Fitzpatrick - Gil Bellows Chip Metzger - Brendan Fehr Natalie Alexis - Kristin Adams Fresno Burnbaum - Eric Stoltz Tim Weston-Ellis - Peter Paige J.D. Robinson - Alan Thicke Reed Harrison - Michael Murphy Sydney Mehta - Noam Jenkins.
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