Geliophobia — the fear of laughter — is one of the few not held by Simon Pegg’s nerve-addled protagonist in “A Fantastic Fear of Everything,” but it does afflict this stunningly joke-free comedy-horror hybrid from debuting writer-director (and former muso) Crispian Mills. As a neurotic writer’s paranoia is gradually justified over one very long night in London’s East End, this effortfully quirky pic refuses to settle for mere ineptitude, adding casual misogyny and pronounced racism to its rap sheet. Following underperformers like “Paul” and “Burke and Hare,” this barely exportable oddity casts further doubt on genial Brit comic Pegg’s headliner status.
Indomina Releasing already holds U.S. distribution rights to “Fantastic Fear,” but it’s hard to imagine what unsuspecting Yanks will make of the knowingly antiquated, quasi-Victorian tone of the film’s first half in particular. Mills’ shaggy-dog narrative clearly owes more to the absurdist vein of British TV comedy that has hatched such cult properties as “The League of Gentlemen” and “The Mighty Boosh” than to the accessible brand of genre spoofery on which Pegg built his reputation with regular collaborator Edgar Wright, yet it’s so short on wit in either regard that even acclimatized Blighty auds will be left befuddled.
“You wanna polish my script?” says Jack (Pegg), a flailing children’s-book author and would-be screenwriter, fourth-walling the audience during one of his two excruciating rap numbers. “Polish this, motherf—er!” Nobody appears to have taken him up on his invitation, as Mills’ own script belabors a claustrophobic opening act detailing Jack’s writer’s block and chronic fear of being murdered. There’s a serial killer on the loose in his quarter of Hackney, a famously dicey London borough, and he’s not easing his state of mind by researching a screenplay on legendary local murderers encouragingly titled “Decades of Death.”
When his unctuous literary agent, Clair (Clare Higgins, her “Hellraiser” affiliation lending the character a sinister tint), improbably sets up a meeting for Jack with a powerful script developer, he’s forced into the outside world. The need to dress neatly for the occasion compels the mangy hermit to face his most deep-seated fear: that of the humble laundromat. From this already strained “Big Lebowski”-aping premise, things get both sillier and grislier, as Jack encounters the “Hanoi Handshake” of the aforementioned killer, while the Vietnamese population of the East End comes in for perplexing ridicule. (A typically queasy one-liner: “The place went to pot. Pol Pot.”)
Pegg is an engaging comic presence in controlled doses, but given free rein over material this thin and a character this charmless, it’s not long before one wishes Jack’s fear of meeting his maker would come to swift fruition.
The fetid palette of browns that d.p. Simon Chaudoir has been given to work with doesn’t make the proceedings any more appealing, though the film’s few bright spots largely stem from co-director Chris Hopewell’s eccentric production design. A stop-motion sequence bringing to life one of Jack’s kiddie stories about woodland creatures is, however incongruous with the whole, the most inventive thing here. “We must all journey through Hades before we reach our heaven,” a character intones at one point. Mills’ film never finds its heaven, but its hedgehogs will have to do.