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Renfield sucks all the fun out of What We Do in the Shadows’ formula

Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult’s vampire horror-action-comedy is distracted, cynical, and clumsy on all fronts

A gleeful, grinning Dracula (Nicolas Cage) looms over a depressed-looking Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) in Renfield Photo: Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures

“I am a codependent.” This line is thrown out emphatically and frequently, coming in voice-over and from multiple characters, throughout Chris McKay’s ineffectual, irony-poisoned vampire splatter comedy Renfield. The confessional is part of the movie’s throughline about people recognizing and taking ownership of the monsters running their lives, but it ends up as a handy reminder of the flavorless pop culture gruel that has dominated the release schedule in recent years. When it comes to Hollywood, we’re all codependents. For every thoughtfully crafted action film, there is a pair of empty superhero outings. For every brazenly stylistic franchise entry, there are several that take no chances.

And yet, despite the odds of being tormented by a boardroom assemblage of sounds and images every time we go to a theater, we still hope the movies will love us back, the way we keep showing them love with our hard-earned cash. In some ways, this makes Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) — a doormat of a servant granted eternal life and superhuman combat skills by Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage) — the most relatable Hollywood leading man in ages as he tries to figure out how to escape his master’s mystical grasp. But this comparison is also the only thing that makes the movie remotely amusing, and it feels entirely accidental. Shamefully, even Cage can’t save a role that seems, on paper at least, like it could have been fun.

Nicolas Cage as a very traditional movie Count Dracula (pale-as-paper skin, slicked-back black hair with a widow’s peak, black cape with a huge high collar, hungry look in his eyes) takes the hand of a woman with her back to the camera in Renfield Photo: Universal Pictures

Renfield is bad in a way too many big studio movies are bad, yet it proves to be one of the worst examples of a self-reflexive, pop-culture-referencing modern “property” that plays like a hollow impression of something better. That isn’t an abstract thought: This $80 million monstrosity is desperately calculated as an attempt to play in the same league as What We Do in the Shadows, the vampire mockumentary and subsequent FX series showcasing the mundane lives of ghoulish bloodsuckers in Wellington and New York.

But where Shadows quickly establishes a wry tone by deflating the grandeur of vampire lore, McKay and screenwriter Ryan Ridley (working from a story by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman) can’t nail down either a tone or a central premise for Renfield. No performance in this movie is serious enough for satire, or operatic enough to push the tone toward camp. Does the story unfold in a world where Dracula is a well-guarded secret? An open one? A figure thought to be fictional until revealed otherwise? Who’s to say? The question isn’t broached until an hour into its 90-minute run time, after which every human character has an entirely different reaction to Dracula’s presence, depending on what poorly set-up punchline appears to have been jotted down in Ridley’s first draft. That is, if the supporting characters are granted the luxury of reaction shots at all.

The comedy in Renfield comes not from human behavior, but from the inhuman delivery of references to familiar cultural touchstones. This works exactly once, when the movie retells the history of Renfield and Dracula through a particularly innovative flashback, by superimposing Hoult and Cage over Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s Dracula, the 1931 Universal classic that cemented the image of vampires in American film. From that point on, there’s a chance viewers might even struggle to recognize which lines are meant to be jokes. Take, for instance, a series of extended references to ska music, where the punchline is someone simply mentioning the genre with disdain, a bit that would’ve felt passé in 2016.

Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), in a bloody sweatshirt and with blackish blood all over his face, glares at a cackling, bloody-mouthed Dracula (Nicolas Cage) in Renfield Photo: Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures

The framing device, of Renfield attending a New Orleans support group for codependents, has exactly one joke that the movie runs dry and then some: the idea that Renfield’s servitude, involving him repeatedly nursing Dracula back to health by providing him with fresh victims while getting little in return, can be compared to a toxic relationship. But the problem with deploying this comparison in a tongue-in-cheek way is that it isn’t really a comparison to begin with — the way, say, 22 Jump Street draws similarities between the conventions of dating and two undercover detectives having to negotiate a breakup, using terms like “we should investigate other people.”

When it comes to Renfield and the human members of his group, their problems are quite literally the same — unrequited adoration for a manipulative narcissist — so even the movie’s basic setup gets folded into its overarching problem. The people behind Renfield never have any idea of how to sincerely approach their own material. The attempted double entendres usually have a singular meaning.

Tyranny of tone and language aren’t the movie’s only problems. Its story is similarly half-baked, with allusions galore to overcoming demons and finding inner strength that are only ever lip-service, rather than being dramatically or even comedically expressed. When Renfield stumbles into an ongoing crime saga — involving Ben Schwartz as a slimy gangster, Shohreh Aghdashloo as his imposing mob-boss mom, and Awkwafina as a straight-laced cop on their tail (a role she plays with exaggerated affectations that never match the material) — a number of fight scenes ensue, though they barely make an impact.

Renfield’s timid demeanor ought to clash hilariously with his penchant for action that lies halfway between martial arts and breakdancing, but that action barely registers with the eye or the brain. Where the spoken dialogue is alphabet soup, the visuals are salad. Each shot is cut within an inch of its life, so that even when something potentially delightful occurs — some instance of gory blood spatter born from torn limbs, albeit using horrendously subpar digital effects — McKay usually lets it whiz by, rather than holding for more than a fleeting moment on what ought to be grossly funny.

In a production shot from Renfield, Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo, in a white pantsuit and heavy gold chains) leans over a seated, black-suited Tedward Lobo (Benjamin Schwartz) in what appears to be a neon-lit torture chamber, with chains dangling from the ceiling and a backlit mesh-fence wall covered with garden tools, weapons, and random knives Photo: Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures

The exception is the bang-up practical makeup job applied to Cage when Dracula is a rotting corpse at the start of the film, leaving him in desperate need of Renfield’s help. It’s tactile, and silly in a commendable way — it feels like Dracula’s putrid, pustulating flesh could melt off his bones at any time — but nothing in Cage’s embodiment of the character is nearly as gauche. It’s a mostly one-note performance involving wide-eyed stares and drawn-out delivery. There’s no rhythm to it; no glimmer of mischief, let alone the kind of explosiveness or unpredictability that keeps fans showing up for Cage movies. Renfield won’t end up in any viral Nic Cage montages, and that may be its biggest indictment.

Hoult is appropriately doe-eyed and self-effacing as Renfield — he’s probably the most sincere part of an otherwise cynical project — but he’s the only actor who seems to have been allowed to tap into anything resembling a comedic or dramatic soul. He’s also the only one not saddled with dialogue that plays like amateur improv. He isn’t grating to watch. That’s the bare minimum for an actor on screen, yet it’s a prerequisite that nearly every other facet of Renfield fails to meet, from its mind-numbing action that refuses to luxuriate in thrills or gross hilarity to its scattered tale of a man finding ways to tell off his asshole boss. In that vein, it ought to be the most relatable comedy in the world. Instead, it’s just a series of disconnected images, strung together by half-baked quips that you could place in the mouth of practically any other character. The result would feel just as defeating.

Renfield debuts in theaters on April 14.

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