Director: Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion
Writer: Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan, Josh C. Waller
Producer: Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Elijah Wood, Tove Christensen, Georgy Malkov, Steven Schneider
Stars: Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan, Jorge Garcia
An elementary school teaching staff bands together to battle their students when a virus mutates children into cannibalistic creatures.
Leigh Whannell is responsible for co-creating two of the biggest contemporary horror franchises with his terrific scripts for the “Saw” and “Insidious” series. Whether partnered with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog or with the cast of “30 Rock,” Jack McBrayer consistently impresses as an outstanding comedic actor. Ditto Nasim Pedrad of “Saturday Night Live.” Alison Pill of “The Newsroom.” Rainn Wilson of “The Office.” Jorge Garcia of “Lost.” Elijah Wood. Run through the list of notable names attached to “Cooties” and anyone would be right to expect a raucous riot of horror-comedy certain to split sides and shake out screams. Except it isn’t and it doesn’t.
When New York City dashes his horror novelist hopes, likable loser Clint lands back at his mother’s house in the Midwestern Mayberry of Fort Chicken. There, Clint picks up part-time work as a substitute at the small town’s eclectic elementary school. Filling out the teacher’s lounge roster are repressed homosexual Tracy, socially awkward Doug, former flame Lucy, and Lucy’s current beau Wade, a mustachioed macho man and gym teacher with more in his paunch than he has in his pecs.
Clint’s first day at work quickly resembles one of his novels when a virus-oozing supply of chicken nuggets makes its way under the cafeteria heat lamps. Patient zero takes one bite out of the nugget and another out of her classmate as the infection spreads across the playground, turning students into cootie creatures while teachers run for cover. Clint and his compatriots then band together to battle salivating schoolkids as the outbreak overwhelms and the outlook for survival grows grimmer with each passing period.
“Cooties” creates characters with singular quirks, resulting in stereotypes so one-dimensional that jokes cannot avoid redundancy due to overuse. Rainn Wilson’s tic is that his tongue ties whenever he repeatedly describes his truck’s “dual wheel well.” Wilson is funny enough on his own to earn a half-hearted “heh” on the gag’s first employment, but that “heh” arcs into a sigh before falling into a groan once the usage count grows innumerable.
Leigh Whannell’s character does the same. His gimmick is to bark at people to stop doing things they are already not doing, like shushing noise during stretches of silence. As before, what musters amusement on the first go limps into a faceplant by the umpteenth time around.
Then again, at least their thin characters provide some sort of purpose to the plot. Time would be better spent attempting to solve the Fermat-Catalan conjecture than determining the point of Jorge Garcia’s unnecessary inclusion as a shroom-addled stoner hallucinating giraffes in his van, and interacting with virtually no one from the core cast until the reshot finale.
“Cooties” rarely delivers a joke that isn’t obvious. Jack McBrayer’s entire in-the-closet performance is a buildup to an inevitable “I’m gay!” punchline. Elijah Wood is belittled as a “hobbit.” Wood’s sweet, cheerful mother can’t help but unleash a “surprising” torrent of negativity when Wood convinces her to offer honest criticism of his latest manuscript. And since he is writing a horror novel about a haunted boat, of course his book’s title is “Keel Them All.”
Similarly cringe-worthy writing dots the dialogue. An already absurd visual of Rainn Wilson clubbing cannibalistic kids with a lacrosse stick while clad in football shoulder pads is made more so when he snarls, “I’m giving you kids an ‘F’ – for f*ck you!” Co-star and co-writer Leigh Whannell saves the worst line for himself by muttering “nugget out of here!” to prompt escape after retrieving the tainted chicken product.
Jack McBrayer is effeminate. Elijah Wood is petite. Lame puns apparently have not gone out of fashion. These are the best jokes this crew is capable of? This is not well-constructed humor. This is comedic fruit hanging so low that it drags ruts in the dirt.
As for the horror half of the movie, the storyline runs through a standard cinema scenario for a typical zombie outbreak. Characters fret over wounds and fight about who might be infected. An unlikely hero rises to the occasion. Survivors fortify defenses before being overrun only to escape to the next location where the same steps are repeated. Nothing that happens is fresh, and nothing that happens is frightening.
Another disappointing element is an almost-romance between Elijah Wood and Alison Pill, whose subplot instantly halts an otherwise relentless pace to develop their would-be relationship into a dead end. The couple’s dynamic is more important to the script than the attention it is given onscreen, and the thread is abandoned without reasonable resolution thanks in part to a reworked ending confusing as much as it corrects from the cut first screened at Sundance. It’s as uncommitted as anything else put into play, including a late-game homily concerning underappreciated educators that misses the mark as a heartfelt theme.
“Cooties” is a broken film that never finds a satisfying way to fully come together. The 20-month gap between its January 2014 debut and September 2015 theatrical release is evidence of the effort required to tinker with the pieces, yet the film still comes up short with too scattered of a vision.
“Cooties” deserves to be more enjoyable than it is, but only one hand is needed to count legitimate laughs. That’s a shame given the potential of the talent involved, as this is a group capable of much cleverer work.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 45