by Nick Pinkerton

Dir. Glen Morgan, U.S., New Line Cinema

In Hollywood, where profit margins are worked through to the tenth decimal before any celluloid gets to be exposed, and where every incoming product proudly wears its demographic on its sleeve, the appearance of a big-budget born loser like Willard is anomaly enough to make anyone take notice. It's the kind of intrinsically catastrophic concoction that can't help but flop; in fact Willard seems to defiantly exist to not make money. The pitch goes like this: it's an honest-to-God vehicle for the artfully off-putting Crispin Glover, and a remake of a little-loved early-Seventies obscurity best remembered for spawning little Michael Jackson's saccharine paean to rat-boy love, "Ben." Chalk it up to the guys at New Line having some fun with Lord of the Rings residuals or a green-lighting gag gone too far but, against all odds, Willard exists, and it might be playing at a multiplex near you.

The story arc is a sweaty passive-to-aggressive revenge triptych; Willard (Glover) is a beleaguered bureaucrat whose frail psyche has long ago disintegrated under an unyielding two-front siege. At home, he is henpecked and effectively neutered by his mother (Shirley Walker), a soggy-looking, feverish matriarch prone to harping on her son's "weak" name and demanding reports on the consistency of his stool. At work, he faces the denture-white acid-reflux scowl of his employer, Mr. Martin (R. Lee Ermey), a predatory martinet who misses no opportunity to sadistically assert his Alpha superiority. Though a pretty new co-worker (Laura Harring, the amnesiac sex-bomb of Mulholland Drive) throws him occasional life-preserver attempts at empathy, our protagonist remains the quintessential outsider, friendless, adrift and isolated, with taut throwaway smiles flashing on his bloodless lips to the tune of inside-inside jokes that he alone hears.

All this changes with a few trips to the basement. Initially sent on a rat-killing mission by mom, Willard secretly develops a unique repartee and a nurturing relationship with a white rat that he names Socrates. Their inter-species pact soon places Glover as dictator-for-life of his own subterranean rodent kingdom, and he immediately sets out to drill his ever-increasing subjects in the art of war, initially just for some innocuous prankery. Tensions escalate, however, with the appearance of Ben, a huge, piggy-eyed strong-arm rodent, whose duplicitous presence sets Willard on a darker path.

Any discussion of Willard must, in essence, be a discussion of its star, Mr. Crispin Hellion Glover, who not only acts in the movie, but also possesses it in a much larger sense. For over a decade he's led something of a double life, paying the bills by lending out his trademark twitch or marble-hewn Roman nose whenever McG or the like comes calling, while simultaneously creating and distributing his own books, albums, and films via his label, Volcanic Eruptions. Not unlike Vincent Gallo, his fellow multi-tasking tenant in the cult ghetto, Glover is an actor who has developed much more than just a look. He's got his own aesthetic. It's a far cry from the arrow collars, Yes-worship, and melancholic singer-songwriter narcisscism of Gallo's self-contained Seventies bathysphere, however; Crispin is drawn to the starchy, mannered perversions of the Victorian era that Willard evokes. I suspect it's the girdled restraint of proper society during this time that attracts the actor, who knows better than anyone that simmering repression is the lifeblood of his best work. It's no coincidence that his star-making role as Back to the Future's George McFly, all Brylcreem greasiness and Sal Mineo squirm, was set in uptight Eisenhower America. On the cusp of his 40th birthday (or 80th, since, as true Glover aficionados know, he celebrates twice a year), he remains our best and brightest overgrown adolescent.

Everything about Glover's work in Willard contributes to an overall impression of heightened self-consciousness and awkward-age carefulness, from his clipped, hyper-enunciated speech to his lacquered, meticulously parted hair. Even Willard's simplest gestures are precisely choreographed to be ever-so-slightly wrong; just watch how he gingerly picks up an envelope with his middle fingers. The actor's voice is a remarkable instrument of uncertainty, possessed with a unique off-tunefulness, constantly fluctuating between inflections while never finding one that sounds "right." His sing-songy delivery can make a simple line like "I'm going potty" both hilarious and unnerving. Accusations of hamming are redundant; there's no way for a Crispin Glover creation to act natural. His characters are painfully, embarrassingly aware of their bodies, always engaged in a losing tightrope act of keeping up appearances. When Willard's guard inevitably drops, he erupts in a hoarse, woman-ish voice, his lank body jerking like an apoplectic-controlled marionette, his eyes leaking tears as though they've been punctured. But even in losing control he can't quite seem to shake the harsh, rigid angles out of his frame.

A reference to Bellevue Hospital marks Willard's ostensible setting as New York, but it might just as easily be taking place in Vienna at the turn of the last century. The film's feel could have been lifted out one of Glover's own books, which are dense assemblages of 19th-century medical texts and other drudged-up, moldering historical debris. The movie is a garage sale of cornball Freudianisms (Morgan milks the "playing with rats/ playing with self" analogy for all it's worth), wrought iron, and lovingly lingered-on decay. Our protagonist lives in a grimy Brooklyn where the laws of urban renewal have been out-of-order since the advent of electricity. Everything in the movie is old: every carpet is frayed, every book dog-eared, every scrap of metal rusted through. Ermey is even equipped with a pair of those protruding, hawk-like eyebrows rarely seen outside of dusty portraits of men named "Thaddeus," making him fit perfectly his part of Dickensian potentate. But it is, in part, the piles of impeccably art-directed folderol choking Willard's gothic home that make this less of a movie than it should be. For all the cutesy tossed-off allusions director Glen Morgan's script makes to Psycho, the fledgling director might've done well to study Hitch's film a bit closer. It's a film made by the world's most famous director fresh off a run of self-described "glossy Technicolor baubles," and yet it quite deliberately has the bleary look of some sicko late-night TV drama. Willard, by contrast, stumbles too often into faux-Tim Burton terrain, fussily reproducing every nuance of B-grade horror movies and E.C. Comics ambiance, but in the process smoothing over everything gross, crude, and disreputable that made them so special; it's almost a case study in how difficult it is to make a cult movie on purpose.

Oceans of CGI rats, Kafkaesque anxiety, and PG-13 bloodletting aside, Willard is finally one of the least terrifying entries in Crispin Glover's filmography. Compare his rebel-without-a-soul in River's Edge, the oppressive discomfort he generates in Little Noises or The Orkly Kid, or, if you dare, his self-directed music video for his song "Clowny Clown Clown," which has the feel of something taped off a public access station in hell. Willard is almost too customized for him, too literal but not quite as sickly imaginative as something he might've created himself. It's a unifying feature of those disparate sadist characters who crowd under the cult umbrella, from Neil Hamburger to R.W. Fassbinder, that they invert the basic ingratiating "Make 'em laugh" tenet of entertainment, working overtime to rub us the wrong way instead. They can be allowed almost anything, but they should never, ever feel comfortable. So, yes, Willard fits Crispin Glover perfectly. But it should be at least three sizes too small.