Movie review, 'Willard'

EntertainmentMoviesCrispin GloverR Lee ErmeyDeathStar Wars (movie)Sam Raimi

"Right now, this moment, I like myself."

This payoff line in "Willard," a remake of the 1971 killer-rat film, is fabulous - perfectly placed and beautifully delivered - because of what it represents, which is so much more than a looming lunchtime in rodent land. Finally, the much-abused Willard Stiles (Crispin Glover) has self-esteem, thanks to rat power.

"Willard" is more than a killer-rat story; it's a morality play about loyalty and friendship. Rats kill because their "leader" tells them to, and they turn on this leader only after he betrays them.

Yet this faithful resurrection of the original "Willard," a twisted gem in its own right, also is funny.

A cat, running for its life, hits the TV clicker, and the room fills with the 1972 "Ben" (sequel to the original "Willard") theme song. A Big Ben alarm clock and Big Ben chewing tobacco are some of the self-aware sight gags that raise the wacky spirit of director Sam Raimi's delightful "Evil Dead 2." Unrelenting gloom and doom are difficult to sustain in a film, and here the tension that is relieved by laughter makes the moments of horror that much more effective.

Willard, brilliantly overacted by Glover, is a wimp, a friendless mama's boy who is pushed around in every aspect of his life. His cadaverous mother, who echoes Norman Bates' mother in Hitchcock's "Psycho" (until the film lets us in on the joke by showing her), bosses him around. Her emotional bullying is as fearsome as the physical intimidation that Willard faces at work, at the hands of Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey).

The loud, foulmouthed Mr. Martin makes a point of reminding Willard, who always seems to be about 20 minutes late for work, that the only reason he has a job is because of a promise made to Willard's late father. Plain and simple, Willard's life is a drag, from the woman (Laura Elena Harring) brought in to replace him to Mr. Martin's torment.

This all changes when his mother howls, "Willard! There are rats in the basement!"

Willard hates the idea of rats and having to deal with them, but doing his duty, he sets out traps. He catches a rat, only to find that he can't do what is necessary. Willard frees the rat and names it Socrates. They cuddle and sleep together, as Socrates becomes an island for the previously friendless Willard. Socrates not only repays Willard with friendship, but serves as intermediary between Willard and the hundreds of rats living in the basement. Rats, after all, are nothing if not loyal.

But then there's Ben, a big ol' rat who brims with a shifty-eyed malevolence that is chilling. Were this "Star Wars," Ben would represent the dark side of the Force. When Socrates meets an untimely demise, you can almost hear Ben saying, "You'll never know the power of the dark side," as Willard, finally suffering one straw too many by Mr. Martin, goes over the edge.

When Willard joins forces with Ben, the beauty of this allegiance is that you aren't sure who's using who. Willard needs a control rat who speaks the language, but what does Ben need from Willard? We find that it is ultimately loyalty.

Glover dominates the screen. He does a magnificent, 80-minute slow burn in his marvelous performance, which engenders empathy and ultimately pity when he goes too far. Willard isn't legitimately evil, and with this shade of gray, we empathize. He is a man marooned on an emotional island. Think of it as "Survivor" - only the rats eat instead of being eaten.

Rat-phobic people should be warned that these aren't cute rats. "Willard" employs a very effective mixture of real (550 of 'em) and animatronic rats. The mammoth, terrifying Ben is an African Gambian rat that is indeed the size of a cat, while Socrates is an albino Norwegian rat. There is some CGI touch-up of the rats' facial expressions, but Glover frolics among and cuddles up to the real thing. He does this with a zeal that makes what these critters represent for him - friendship and, ultimately, effective conflict resolution - absolutely believable.

Willard gets his just desserts - repayment for his disloyalty - in a neat, oh-so-logical plot twist that, like the rest of this movie, works like a charm. These rats will not be used and tossed away like last week's cheese. Like Tom's Jerry or the mouse in "Mouse Hunt," the critters will have their day.

3 stars (out of 4) "Willard"
Directed and written by Glen Morgan; edited by James Coblentz; production design by Mark Freeborn; produced by James Wong, Morgan; photographed by Robert McLachlan. Opens Friday, March 14. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: PG-13 (terror, violence, language).
Willard - Crispin Glover
Mr. Martin - R. Lee Ermey
Cathryn - Laura Elena Harring Henrietta Stiles - Jackie Burroughs

Kevin Williams is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.

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