Christian Alvart's Case 39 is a pretty paint-by-numbers bad seed pic. There's this kid who seems really sympathetic at first, and then there's some effective suspense, and then we get to reevaluate our opinion of whether or not she's sympathetic.
Renée Zellweger (all right) plays Emily Jenkins, an overworked social worker with--you guessed it--38 cases in her current caseload. She's a whirlwind of do-gooding, making this appointment, chewing out this bad parent, when her boss (Adrian Lester) decides she's the one to get a 39th case. Let's call it "Case 39."
Still, something about the young girl's picture in the new file touches something in Emily, maybe she sees a bit of herself in the girl. At first it seems a relatively minor case. There's been nothing out of the ordinary about the life of Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland, very good) so far, but recently there's been a report that her grades are slipping badly, and she's falling asleep in class.
Off to the Sullivans', then, where we meet her strange, harried, monotone mother, Margaret (Kerry O'Malley, good), and her basement-spelunking father, Edward (Callum Keith Rennie, also good). It's pretty clear to Emily from their demeanors and Lilith's pleading eyes that something fairly odd could be going on in their household. Emily can't prove anything, but she manages to communicate with Lilith and have her parents called in to the social services office for a more in-depth interview.
Though their characters are pretty poorly used, Bradley Cooper and Ian McShane make some impact playing, respectively, Doug, a psychologist who helps evaluate children for social services, and Detective Barron, a hardbitten but trustworthy cop friend of Emily's who has "gone off the books" a few times to help her with various issues with the children she's monitoring.
A late-night phone call from Lilith puts Emily and Detective Barron into action, and soon Emily finds herself with a new foster child. There are too few scenes after this which really establish a rapport between foster mother and child; there should have been entirely more.
The middle of the movie is something of a muddle, with some effective suspense and revelations interweaving with not much to make any particular character identifiable and some special effects of varying specialty. A backstory for Emily could have added a lot, but instead it's kind of lamely inserted at the last minute so that it can't resonate with anything from any other part of the film.
A passable score by Michl Britsch helps keep the enterprise moving, but we see and feel the chug-chug of the plot like a long, tiring train ride to the middle of nowhere. Put this clue with that one! Here are three better bad seed movies off the top of my head! Here are three better Zellweger movies off the top of my head! Here are three better Bradley Cooper movies off the top of my head! And other thoughts for boring movies. Case 39 could have gotten up to much more, and more involving devilment, but it's satisfied just not to. I understand the movie's release was delayed a year or two, during which time I imagine the filmmakers got their shoes shined a lot, maybe had meetings.
Case 39 is not a good movie, but it's not the worst movie ever, or of its genre. Like in this year's The Last Exorcism, it's hard for the film to quit throwing off clues and decide on something. When it does, feh. Want a supernatural thriller, watch Devil, it's awesome, it has characters and keeps you guessing.
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