Comedy, in a lot of ways, is the most subjective genre in any medium. Something that one person finds hilarious could fall completely flat for another—and both would be correct in their opinions because comedy comes from the realm of visceral, indescribable feelings, and gut reactions. Even more subjective is how a comedy film should be judged. Is a comedy a success by virtue of the fact that it makes you laugh, or does it need to offer something in the way of plot and theme in order to be considered a ‘good’ movie? How you answer this question will ultimately be the deciding factor in how you judge What We Do in the Shadows, the new vampire comedy from Takia Waititi and Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement.
Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Clement and Waititi, the film tracks four vampires through day-to-day existence in present-day Wellington, New Zealand: Viago (Waititi), a romantic-era English dandy; Vladislav (Clement), a sadistic nymphomaniac; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), an ex-nazi punk; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), an 8,000 year-old grotesque vampire resembling Max Schreck in Nosferatu.
There isn’t much in the way of a narrative through-line; instead, a few subplots weave their way in and out of scenes—including an annoying bro-type who risks drunkenly blowing the protagonists’ cover, a suburban housewife who supplies the crew with victims in the hopes that she will one day receive eternal life, and a rival pack of werewolves. The film tries to split the difference between being a series of unconnected vignettes about the practical implications of being a vampire (given that the film’s production company is sketch site Funny or Die, the film was likely conceived as such), and a more traditional plot-driven story that places stock in the character’s feelings and ambitions. As a result, the film feels slow and pace-less for the first two-thirds before rushing into a final act that brings all of the characters into one room.
Thankfully, the acting is good enough to carry the film through its weak spots. Waititi is the standout, playing the fastidious straight-man who has to clean up after his roommates and mediate their petty grievances. He brings to the role a sense of world-weary forlornness that only a 183-year-old can truly experience, elevating the material to a level of pathos that the rest of the movie would have benefitted from. Clement, Brugh, and Fransham all give performances that can be called funny and memorably weird, but not much else. The supporting cast of New Zealand locals is fantastic, with Rhys Darby unsurprisingly stealing every scene he’s in as the alpha male of the werewolf pack who tries to keep his beastly urges at bay.
The other redeeming element is that the film looks better than any film with such a small budget has any right to. It’s filmed more competently than most modern documentaries—the cameras are placed in a way that can simultaneously capture the reactions of every character on screen, which is essential for a comedy like this. Some of the special effects are shockingly well done—especially when the vampires fly, which looks realistic and works well comedically.
Ultimately, this is a film that is best approached with managed expectations. Those who see this movie expecting anything more than humour are going to be disappointed, but there’s still enough great material that makes it relatively worthwhile. This is the very definition of an airplane movie—quick and funny, enough to keep you entertained through an hour and a half flight, but light enough to forget about when you reach the tarmac.
What We Do in the Shadows opens on Friday, Feb. 13, at Cinema Cineplex Forum (2313 Sainte-Catherine W). General admission is $12.99 and $6.99 on Tuesdays.