Oct. 1 2010 12:00 AM

Long-shelved 'Case 39' inspires chuckles, not chills


Maybe there's a sliver of truth in all those "Oscar curse" theories after all.
Six years ago, Renee Zellweger took home a best supporting actress Academy Award for "Cold Mountain," in which she gave a memorably feisty performance as the tough farmwoman who teaches Civil War survival skills to lady of the manor Nicole Kidman.
Since then, Zellweger has stayed busy, but her fans have stayed home. Even such seemingly sure-fire projects as "Cinderella Man" (with Russell Crowe) and "Leatherheads" (with George Clooney) underperformed, and two of her best-reviewed vehicles, "Miss Potter" and "My One and Only," barely got released at all.
Then there was "Case 39," which is quietly slipping into theaters three years after it was shot (the film bears a 2007 copyright date). Any mystery as to why it's been on the shelf for so long will be quickly cleared up once you see this woebegone would-be thriller, which generates far more chuckles than chills.
Sporting a blonde ponytail and a shapeless white blouse that oozes out from beneath her sweater vest, Zellweger brings a pained earnestness to the role of Emily Jenkins, a social worker with a heart of gold and a desk full of heartaches. "I'm buried here!" she wails as her boss (Adrian Lester) tosses one more file at her; she has 38 active cases, but our Em can't turn away from the sad story of little Lily Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland), whose mean mom and dad seem to be trying to do her in.
"This little girl heard her parents say they were gonna send her to Hell," Emily huffs. She sneaks around the Sullivan house and notices the parents have a Bible in their bedroom and a crucifix on the wall; that's horror movie shorthand that Emily must be in Nuttyville.
When the Sullivans (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O'Malley) do a full-on Hansel and Gretel, forcing Lily into an oven and trying to bake her to a crisp, the patented Zellweger Death Squint goes into full effect. Not only does Emily rescue Lily, she petitions the court to let her keep the child until a foster family can be found.
But don't head for the exits yet, folks: The show is just getting started. Behind Lily's fragile smile and sad eyes is a malicious mind and a gift for mental manipulation even Hannibal Lecter might envy. She freaks out the world's hottest child psychologist (a pre-"Hangover" Bradley Cooper) and sets off sirens in the psyche of Emily's secret partner (Ian McShane), an investigator who warns new mother Emily that Lily is a real mutha.
As Emily slowly goes around the bend, "Case 39" zooms into the realm of unintentional hilarity. A seemingly psychic fire department responds about 30 seconds after a house goes up in flames. One character's untimely -- and uproarious -- demise gives new meaning to the term "bug-eyed," while director Christian Alvart desperately tries to turn up the terror with such old reliables as clanging alarm clocks, yapping dogs and phone calls from phantoms. The frosting on the cake is the stupefying score by Michl Britsch, which sounds like it was composed for a 1982 Morgan Fairchild movie.
Outside of "The Exorcist" and "The Bad Seed," the maniacal moppet genre hasn't produced much that was worth watching ("Godsend," "Hide and Seek," "Orphan," the "Omen" series), although "Case 39" sometimes rivals the Macaulay Culkin camp classic "The Good Son" for sheer silliness and unbridled bad taste. Heaven knows "Case 39" didn't improve with age: It stinks like three-year-old sushi and it's just about as easy to swallow.

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