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'Renfield' Is Too Busy Worrying We’re All Stupid to Be Any Good

By Melanie Fischer | Film | April 19, 2023 |

By Melanie Fischer | Film | April 19, 2023 |


There is perhaps little in this world more widely relatable than the struggle of dealing with an awful boss. In our current IP-obsessed Hollywood landscape, the fundamental concept of the new film Renfield is a great one—the millionth or so retelling of Dracula, only this time from the perspective of the vampire’s fanatical servant, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), who a century into the gig is starting to have doubts. And yearnings for some semblance of a work-life balance.

It’s a great idea, and perfectly cast. Beyond Hoult, there is of course Nicolas Cage as Dracula himself, the sort of casting that seems so self-evident it feels somewhat surprising Cage hasn’t played the role before. Awkwafina is arguably more hit or miss; she continues to be one of those actors who does not play different characters so much as show up in projects where there are roles built specifically for the particular persona she has crafted for herself. This time around she goes by the name of Rebecca Quincy, a second-generation policewoman demoted to traffic cop after she refuses to stop pursuing the powerful crime family, the Lobos, who killed her father. Ben Schwartz, meanwhile, plays mafia nepo baby bossling in training Teddy Lobo; the nth variation of the Jean-Ralphio Saperstein type role he’s played on repeat often since his Parks and Recreation days.

As seems par for the course in any studio film over a certain budget, Renfield and Rebecca have approximately -5 chemistry between them. The film at once tries to play the “love at first sight” card with Renfield being enamored upon first catching sight of the policewoman and inspired by her boldness in standing up to Teddy Lobo to take her own stand, and then never even attempting to take their relationship anywhere. He attempts to ask her on a date at one point, gets interrupted, and then apparently forgets to return to the conversation.

The direction, in the hands of Chris McKay (The Tomorrow War), is generally competent if rather bland. But then there is the script. Good lord, the script. Ryan Ridley (Rick and Morty, Community) gets the blame for it—shared with Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), who gets a story credit.

However, the particular way in which Renfield is bad, combined with the fact it was announced close to a decade ago and swapped creative hands several times before making it to production, does suggest that while the problem is absolutely with the script, it’s not so much a case of bad writing as a script that got studio polished to the point of being fully defanged and then some. Studios can be an easy target when trying to explain away bad creative decisions, but in this particular case, rarely has a movie ever been so bad in ways that feel so like a studio note. We’re worried the audience won’t be able to follow, you can almost hear every time a painfully needless voiceover kicks in, describing things your eyes are literally seeing, or saw five minutes previously. Can we make their motivation clearer? For instance: Rebecca has a sister, Kate (Camille Chen) also in law enforcement, but Kate reacted to their father’s death by playing by the rules to the letter and quickly rising through the FBI ranks where Rebecca lashed out and got demoted to traffic cop. This could be easily inferred by meeting the women, hearing their dad was killed in the line of duty, and putting two and two together. However, Renfield instead feels the need to have the women, or occasionally other characters, repeat this information almost every single time they are on screen together. They literally never discuss anything else. It is painful.

“Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” This is a nugget of wisdom so wise it can be attributed to two of the most influential Hollywood storytellers of all time, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder (Lubitsch said it first; Wilder continued to spread the word).

Renfield does not understand this concept. Renfield does not trust the audience to add two plus two, or count. It does not only pre-cut your food for you, but pre-chews it also. Sure, the story could not be easier to digest, but it has also lost all appeal in the process.

The film is, in fact, so overcome with worry that the audience is incapable of following a basic narrative trajectory from A to B to C that it forgets to do anything else but repeat itself ad nauseam until you want to bash your skull against something until you discover whether or not actual heads burst quite as explosively as those depicted in the film itself. There’s a lot of gory violence in this one—it’s not really a pro or a con of the film so much as it simply is, and seems to be a (mostly unsuccessful) attempt to add some of the edge lacking from the dialogue. And the particular shame is, there are vestiges that suggest that maybe once there was some personality somewhere in here before it was lost the sands of time—a snappy beat of dialogue, a curious bone to pick with ska music.

Renfield, as a concept, is a whole bunch of fun. Renfield, as a reality, is a big bummer of a disappointment. What a shame.

Renfield is now playing in theaters.