Review: ‘Come Play,’ starring Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr., Azhy Robertson and Winslow Fegley

October 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

John Gallagher Jr., Azhy Robertson and Gillian Jacobs in “Come Play” (Photo by Jasper Savage/Amblin Partners/Focus Features)

“Come Play”

Directed by Jacob Chase

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Come Play” has a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A mute autistic boy comes across a mysterious computer app where a sinister creature named Larry wants to make a human friend.

Culture Audience: “Come Play” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that have a simple story, good visual effects and scares that aren’t very bloody or gruesome, but other viewers might be easily bored by the repetitive nature of this story.

Gavin MacIver-Wright, Winslow Fegley, Azhy Robertson and Jayden Marine as “Mateo” in “Come Play” (Photo by Jasper Savage/Amblin Partners/Focus Features)

“Come Play” is the type of horror movie that would have been better off as a short film. Although “Come Play” benefits from better-than-average performances from the movie’s main actors, and the final third of the film is the most impactful, the movie’s concept ultimately stretches too thin for a feature-length film. There are too many long sections of the movie that become repetitive and dull before the climactic “showdown” scene. “Come Play” will also draw inevitable comparisons to writer/director Jennifer Kent’s far-superior 2014 horror film “The Babadook,” a movie that’s also about a sinister creature that lives in the pages of a children’s story, and the creature can transport itself into the world when people read the story.

Written and directed by Jacob Chase, “Come Play” (which is based on Chase’s short film “Larry”) demonstrates that he has a good eye for creating the right spooky atmosphere in the right places. The casting for this movie is also well-done. However, the first two-thirds of the film are essentially a repeat loop of a mute kid trying to convince his parents that an evil monster lives in a spooky story app that keeps showing up mysteriously on his computer tablet and phone. His frustration over not being believed becomes tedious to watch after a while, because it doesn’t progress the story until one of his parents start to believe him more than the other parent.

The 8-year-old child at the center of the story is Oliver (played by Azhy Robertson, in a terrific performance), who is autistic and mute. Oliver communicates through a talking computer device that can say the words that he selects. Oliver’s autism has not prevented him from going to a regular public school, but in the beginning of the movie, it’s shown that he is an outcast and a loner at school.

Oliver’s well-meaning parents are Sarah (played by Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who end up separating during this story. Their separation had already been decided before this story took place, and there are hints that Marty is going to be the one who moves out of the house. In the opening scene, Marty is sleeping on the couch, while Sarah is sleeping alone in their bedroom. And there are some packed boxes in the living room, as if he’s already started his move out of the home.

Oliver doesn’t know yet that his parents have decided to split up when he first encounters the creepy monster named Larry. The creature is a skeletal, hunched-over figure that Oliver first sees as an illustration in a children’s story app called “Misunderstood Monsters” that shows up on his computer tablet one night when he’s lying awake in bed. As Oliver swipes through the pages of this story, he sees these words: “This is Larry. Larry never gets to play pretend. He gets made fun of because he’s different. Larry just wants a friend.”

When Oliver gets to another page screen on the tablet, the lights suddenly go off in his room and in the hallway outside of his room. And then he hears the sound of dragging footsteps that get closer and closer, until he screams. And then, Oliver’s mother Sarah comes in the room and tells Oliver that he must have had a nightmare.

The pattern happens every time someone looks at the “Misunderstood Monsters” app and reads Larry’s story. The only variations are when Larry “appears” or seems to appear, Larry sometimes does something a little different. Larry might be crouched in a corner of the living room or kitchen. Larry might be lurking in a hallway. Eventually, it’s revealed that when any computer device with the Larry story is aimed right at Larry, the creature can only be seen on the device’s camera.

When the Larry creature is shown in its full-body entirety, the visuals effects are fairly good, but not uniquely impressive enough, considering that the “skeleton man” archetype has been used before in many other horror movies. But since “Come Play” isn’t a gory horror movie, Larry doesn’t seem to be a vicious murderer. If he does want someone to play with, how is that going to happen?

Even if Oliver tries to stop using his computer tablet and hides it, Larry has a way of coming back into Oliver’s life. Marty works the late shift as a security guard in an outdoor parking lot. For whatever reason, in one of those “only in a movie” coincidences, Marty sees a computer tablet that was in the lost-and-found bin at his work station. This tablet has the Larry story on it, and Marty starts reading it while he’s on the job. Several lights in the parking lot suddenly go out. And then, cars in the parking lot start blink their lights or mysteriously revving their engines.

Marty thinks it’s a freak electricity malfunction, but viewers of “Come Play” know better. Marty brings home the computer tablet and gives the tablet to Oliver as a replacement for the one that Byron threw away in the field. And with that, Larry is back in the family home and back in Oliver’s life.

The plot of “Come Play” is a little too flimsy to be sustained with these mild scares. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the movie never really explains why Larry has targeted this family, although viewers can assume that Oliver’s “outcast” loneliness might have been what attracted Larry. At one point in the story, Larry tells Oliver through computer language: “Your parents want you to be normal. I just want to be your friend.” Oliver is the first one in the family to see Larry, but eventually, Oliver’s not the only one.

Even though there are some Larry moments that are genuinely creepy, there’s absolutely no context of how Larry came into existence and how long Larry has possibly existed. The simple plot of this movie really is that a monster comes after a boy, who has a hard time convincing his parents and everyone around him that what he’s experiencing is real. The adults predictably think that Oliver just has an active imagination.

And then there’s the cliché horror subplot of a bully who gets a comeuppance. Oliver is bullied by a brat named Byron (played by Winslow Fegley), who is in the same class as Oliver at school. One day, Byron and two of his cronies—Zach (played by Gavin MacIver-Wright) and Mateo (played by Jaden Marine)—lure Oliver into a deserted field. After some taunting and roughing up of Oliver, who calls Byron “ugly” in response, Byron gets so angry that he takes Oliver’s talking device and throws it so far into the field that Oliver can’t find it.

Why does Byron seem to hate Oliver so much? It turns out that Byron and Oliver used to be best friends, but they had a falling out, and Byron still has a lot of resentment over it. Bryon’s mother Jennifer (played by Rachel Wilson) was also a close friend of Sarah’s, but when their sons stopped being friends, Jennifer and Sarah grew distant from each other too. The details of these estrangements are revealed later in the film, because it’s the catalyst for the story’s more sentimental emotional moments.

After the bullying incident in the field, Sarah decides the best way to end the bullying is to try to get Byron to become friends with Oliver again. Sarah invites Byron to come to their house for a sleepover with Oliver, but Byron will only accept the invitation if he can bring Zach and Mateo with him. It’s during this sleepover that Byron, Mateo and Zach find out about Larry the monster.

Sarah isn’t just trying to repair Oliver’s relationship with Byron. She’s trying to improve her relationship with Oliver. As a homemaker, Sarah spends more time with Oliver than Marty does, and that becomes even more so after Marty moves out of the house. Sarah is the one who accompanies Oliver to his speech therapy sessions, while Marty makes excuses not to go or he has work commitments that prevent him from being there.

Sarah is also the parent who’s more of a disciplinarian, while Marty tends to be more lenient with Oliver. Therefore, Sarah thinks Oliver loves her less than he loves Marty because she’s not the “fun” parent. It’s caused some long-simmering resentment that Sarah has toward Marty, although it’s unclear how much this resentment has caused their marriage to deteriorate. In fact, it’s never really explained why Sarah and Marty broke up, but apparently, the breakup was a long time coming.

It’s an example of how parts of this story are too vague and why this movie would’ve worked better as a short film. A feature-length film can and should have time for more context so viewers can have better insight into the characters’ personalities. Jacobs and Gallagher are very good in their roles, but their characters are just a little too generic for this story.

As for Robertson, he’s by far the best aspect of this movie. Because Oliver is mute, Robertson has to do a lot of acting with his wonderfully expressive face. And even though his character doesn’t use his mouth to talk, Robertson is still able to convey a lot of emotions that will endear people to Oliver. It’s refreshing to see an autistic character portrayed in a way that is poignant yet not exploitative.

Unfortunately, by the time the action really heats up by the end of the film, it’s somewhat diluted when Sarah and Oliver are hiding under a bed and are supposed to be quiet, but then Sarah uses that moment to have a whispered heart-to-heart talk with Oliver. It doesn’t make sense to drop this conversation in the moment where they’re supposed to be the most silent. Even though “Come Play” has a touching message about the strength of a mother’s love, that message is not enough to overcome all the time that’s wasted where not much happens in the movie except a slightly varied rehash of several other scenes.

Focus Features released “Come Play” in U.S. cinemas in October 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,’ starring Winslow Fegley, Ophelia Lovibond, Kyle Bornheimer, Wallace Shawn and Craig Robinson

February 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Winslow Fegley in "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made"
Winslow Fegley in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” (Photo by Dale Robinette/Disney+)

“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made”

Directed by Tom McCarthy

Culture Representation: In this comedy based on the children’s book of a similar title, the racially diverse characters are primarily middle-class in Portland, Oregon.

Culture Clash: The story’s protagonist is a grim pre-teen boy who aspires to be a private detective, but he dislikes school, authority figures and almost everyone around him.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to children and other people who want to see a series of antics on screen instead of a compelling and coherent story.

Winslow Fegley, Chloe Coleman, Kei and Ai-Chan Carrier in "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made"
Winslow Fegley, Chloe Coleman, Kei and Ai-Chan Carrier in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” (Photo by Dale Robinette/Disney+)

If you’re tired of children’s entertainment that has a sweet-natured and upbeat protagonist, then “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” which is about a pessimistic child who’s a wannabe detective, might be up your alley. However, this comedy film’s flawed and scattered story will test the patience of anyone looking for a realistic and cohesive plot.

The “Timmy Failure” book series (written by Stephan Pastis) began in 2013 with “Timmy Failure: Look What Mistakes Were Made,” so this Disney+ movie adaptation might become a movie series too. If so, the “Timmy Failure” movie series is off to a very questionable start, but there’s a lot of room to improve. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” was directed by Oscar-winning “Spotlight” screenwriter Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” screenplay with Pastis. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is perfect for a streaming service such as Disney+, since it’s doubtful that people would be willing to pay full ticket prices to see a movie about such an unlikable kid.

Timmy Failure is a fifth grader (about 10 or 11 years old) who lives in Portland, Oregon, and is—to put it nicely—very eccentric. He’s an antisocial loner who never smiles, and he has an extreme (and warped) sense of superiority about his intelligence. (He’s not as smart as he thinks he is.) He’s the kind of deliberately negative character who’s much more amusing to watch than to be around in real life. Timmy does a lot of deadpan narration in this film, and he says in the beginning of the story: “I am only concerned with one thing: greatness.”

But in reality, Timmy’s life isn’t so great. He’s barely getting by in school, because he’d prefer to start his own detective agency instead of studying and doing his homework. He has such a disdain for school that he doodles and sketches on test forms instead of filling out the tests with real answers. He also doesn’t think much of other people—his favorite word to describe most people is “problematic”—and his single-minded focus on becoming a private investigator includes a condescending attitude toward police.

Timmy also has a strange prejudice against Russians, whom he automatically suspects of being the perpetrators of any real or perceived crimes that he starts to investigate. His hatred of Russians (he calls them “evil”) seems out of place in a children’s story. Because Tommy’s animosity toward Russians is never explained and certainly never justified, this type of bigotry ultimately isn’t necessary. Imagine if he spouted that kind of hatred toward females or people of a different race. It wouldn’t make it past the editing process of this story.

Timmy’s parents split up years ago, so his bohemian single mother Patty Failure (played by Ophelia Lovibond) isn’t as attentive as she could be, because she’s overwhelmed with working to pay their bills. Timmy’s only “friend” is a 1,500-pound polar bear named Total, who showed up at Timmy’s house one day after the bear was forced out of its home due to global warming. It’s implied in the movie that Total is a figment of Timmy’s imagination, because the bear is seen walking around town, riding in automobiles and going to places where no wild animal of that size would be allowed, and yet people act like it’s perfectly normal.

In his cluttered and messy home, Timmy has set up his one-person “detective agency.” Another sign of his eccentricity is his unwillingness to use 21st-century or computerized resources in his work. His business cards are hand-written. He doesn’t seem to use the Internet. And to record interviews, he uses an old audiocassette recorder that’s held together by tape.

Another one of Timmy’s quirks his that he likes to wear a red scarf as often as possible. He also has this response whenever someone gets angry at something he did: “Normal is for normal people.” And whenever something disastrous happens because of one of his inevitable bad decisions, he says, “Mistakes were made.”

According to Timmy, the polar bear Total is supposed to be a partner in the detective agency, but the polar bear doesn’t do much in this movie except wander around town by itself and show up at infrequent, random moments when Timmy is around. Timmy transports himself by a Segway that his mother won in a church raffle. So, when the Segway (which he calls the Failure Mobile) gets stolen, he makes it his mission to find it and hold the thief responsible.

But before that happens, there are several side “investigations” that Timmy starts and then leaves hanging. He offers to find a fellow student’s lost backpack, but then never follows through on that promise. He’s tasked with the responsibility of taking care of his science class’ pet hamster in his home when it’s his turn to do so. But when he goes to pick up the hamster at the home of a fellow student, the hamster is dead, so Timmy says he’s going to launch a “homicide investigation” to find out who “murdered” the animal. (It never occurs to him that the hamster could have died of natural causes.) These subplots are really distractions and only serve the purpose of showing how annoying Timmy can be.

Timmy attends Cavarette Elementary School, where the classmate who can tolerate him the most is Charles “Rollo” Tookus (played by Kei), whom Timmy treats more as a sidekick than a real friend. Rollo and Timmy have an up-and-down relationship, since Timmy only seems to want to be around Rollo when he needs Rollo to help him with “detective work.” They’ve been estranged in the past: Timmy says in a voiceover narration that he had to “fire” Rollo as his business associate, but Rollo says he actually quit. As much as Timmy distrusts authority and breaks rules, Rollo (who has ambitions to go to Stanford University) likes to follow rules and respect authority.

Two other classmates who are in Timmy’s orbit are smart and likable Molly Moskins (played by Chloe Coleman) and rich girl Corrina Corrina (played by Ai-Chan Carrier). For reasons that aren’t explained in the movie, Timmy really dislikes Corrina to the point where he calls her the “most problematic” person he knows. He says that she and her family are Russian, even though there’s no proof that they are. And he refuses to call her by her name. He only refers to her as “The Nameless One.”

Is she some pre-teen female version of “Harry Potter” villain Voldemort? No. She’s actually very nice to Timmy and other people, but it’s implied that Timmy dislikes and fears her so much because he might have a secret crush on her and he thinks she’s out of his league. Timmy’s negativity about Corrina is so irrational that he thinks the Segway might be hidden in the bank that her father owns. So, Timmy and Rollo go “undercover” to the bank to investigate (their idea of “undercover” is  wearing hockey masks), and some slapstick silliness ensues.

During the course of the movie, Timmy’s mother Patty begins dating a “regular Joe” type of guy named Crispin (played by Kyle Bornheimer), who works as a parking enforcement officer. He’s so self-deprecating about his job that he even calls himself a “meter maid.” It’s a joke that’s made repeatedly in the movie until it starts to wear very thin. Not surprisingly, Timmy doesn’t respect or trust Crispin, even though Crispin tries to establish a rapport with him.

Timmy’s assigned school counselor Mr. Jenkins (played by Craig Robinson) also tries to form a friendly and caring bond with Timmy, but Timmy brushes off attempts by any adults (except his mother) to get close to him. She’s really the only adult he’s willing to obey—and that moment comes when a series of mishaps caused by Timmy result in her finally getting fed up with him and grounding him.

Meanwhile, there’s someone whom Timmy considers a true enemy: Mr. Crocus (played by Wallace Shawn), Timmy’s no-nonsense authoritarian science teacher, who’s been an educator for 43 years and who openly dislikes Timmy.  (The feeling is very mutual.) In a meeting with Timmy’s mother, Mr. Crocus tells her that he’s close to flunking Timmy if Timmy doesn’t drastically improve. Mr. Crocus mentions that Timmy and his mother have been given plenty of warnings, and this will be their last chance. If Timmy fails to pass Mr. Crocus’ class, then Timmy won’t graduate to middle school.

One of the best aspects of “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is when the movie shows glimpses of fantasy sequences that are in his imagination. When middle school is first mentioned in the story, the scene flashes to Timmy’s imagination of kids being marched into a truck titled “Our Crusher of Souls.” When Timmy’s mother Patty mentions how great it would be to live in New York City, the scene cuts to a theater stage showing Timmy’s detective agency as the inspiration of an elaborate Broadway musical, complete with Total descending on the stage in a prop shaped like a half-moon. Another fantasy shows Total causing havoc in Crispin’s office at the police station, while Crispin lets out a horrified scream. But those refreshingly amusing fantasy sequences can’t quite make up for the trite and unfocused aspects of the story.

“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” will be enjoyed best by people (mostly children) who just want to see a weird kid get into all kinds of trouble on screen. Fans of mystery/detective stories will be disappointed because crime-solving is not the real attraction. The real purpose of the Timmy Failure character is to show how someone who thinks very highly of himself is in reality very inept and clueless—and that will make viewers feel better about themselves. Timmy Failure is basically an American kid version of Inspector Clouseau of “The Pink Panther” series, but with a lot less clever writing.

Disney+ premiered “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” on February 7, 2020.