“COOTIES” (Sundance Movie Review)
COOTIES may very well have one of the great opening title sequences. An exhaustive, repulsive and painfully up close document of the process that makes a chicken a chicken nugget, its nature may also very well prime the viewer for something COOTIES doesn’t seem too interested in being outside of the introduction: subversive and gross. And while the film is at points a very funny one, the ever-present reluctance to deliver on true carnage or amplify the bits of satire peppered throughout also make it a lacking one.
At heart, COOTIES is a broad comedy, and it’s neat how co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion first embrace it as such, letting the slow turn to full horror seep in through the visuals. Its first half is as sunny on screen as the small town of Fort Chicken, where Elijah Wood’s failed author character returns to teach summer school. Thrown in with an ensemble of eccentric educators (played by an ensemble of fantastic comedic performers) and a rowdy group of elementary schoolers, Clint is overwhelmed and a bit sad. His day rapidly moves on from being called an asshole by a third grader when a young girl, who digested the infected chicken nugget of the opening titles, begins biting, slashing and eventually transforming her classmates into viral, miniature zombies.
The first outbreak is similar to the opening: a promise never fulfilled. A hilarious, stylish school yard set piece finds the children infecting each other and targeting chaperones and teachers while most of the adults on hand barely notice. Rainn Wilson, as the brute , handlebar mustached gym teacher is far too preoccupied with consistently missing free throws, for instance, all while tykes dog pile his colleagues and munch guts directly behind.
It’s silly and stimulating, and the slo-mo aftermath of a playground and playthings full of bloody handprints and entrails seems to indicate the script from Ian Brennan and INSIDIOUS’ Leigh Whannell has real bite. Instead, the film’s narrative settles into a comfortable stride while the likes of Wilson, Alison Pill, Nasim Pedrad and Jack McBrayer must keep the energy up. In fact, Whannell’s best work in COOTIES is on screen, playing the socially awkward savant Doug. It’s easily the funniest role in COOTIES and writer/actor Whannell absolutely nails both his oddly placed and phrased retorts and gooey visual gags.
Often, the gags land, but aren’t balanced by the film’s horror or supported by a cohesive subtext. There are plenty of nods and one-liners about political divide and the constant debate over how to raise America’s children, such as Pedrad’s clearly homophobic family devotee, or a child confusing overzealousness for patriotism, or placating the zombie kids with Ritalin and Adderall, or the opening’s question of just “what the hell are we feeding these adolescents?” Even just the “cooties” spread itself seems a wink towards the cesspool nature of elementary school. Still, these are fleeting and less impactful when the picture becomes concerned with standard zombie beats like getting around the building unseen and the eventual big escape. And those sequences lag —despite sumptuous neon and synth—due to COOTIES’ unwillingness to really tear into its kids or its wide ensemble, making it especially odd and retroactively disappointing when the film does attempt to go over the line for one beat towards the end.