Odd Thomas’ self-aware expositional humor and translucent, shimmering CGI mayhem bring to mind Peter Jackson’s first shot at the major leagues, The Frighteners. The crucial difference is that writer-director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) is a blockbuster veteran helming his smallest production in two decades; the midnight-circuit enthusiasm for handmade effects which Jackson brought to his first sizably budgeted movie no longer comes naturally to Sommers.
Introduced to the sound of a smash-cut-friendly blues-rock riff, Odd (Anton Yelchin) is a short-order cook who moonlights as a supernatural detective. Operating out of a diner in fictional Pico Mundo, a kind of California-desert Twin Peaks, Odd uses his ability to see ghosts and evil spirits (“bodachs”) to solve or prevent violent crimes with the aid of his girlfriend, Stormy Llewellyn (Addison Timlin), and the local chief of police (Willem Dafoe). If the character names don’t clue a viewer in on the movie’s “quirkiness,” then the winking voiceover and corny wordplay will. (The movie is based on the first in a series of Dean Koontz novels and graphic novels, with later entries bearing such titles as Odd Hours and In Odd We Trust.) At one point, Odd corrects the chief on his pronunciation of “bodach”—an exchange which makes no sense verbally (how does the chief know that a word he’s only heard Odd say is spelled with a ch?), but which exemplifies Odd Thomas’ arch tone. A protective layer of irony ensures that the movie’s commingling of the mundane and the bizarre never registers as camp.
That’s a shame, because Odd Thomas is at its best when it’s presenting—rather than commenting upon or explaining—juxtapositions of the wholesome and the supernatural. Effects set pieces have long been Sommers’ strong suit (see, for instance, the giddy Paris sequence from his last film, the underrated G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra), and, even within the constraints of Odd Thomas’ smaller budget, he manages to pull of a few doozies: Odd’s vision of multi-limbed, shadow-like bodachs crawling all over the patrons of the diner; a freezing cold portal into hell located in the back of a ranch-style house; a nightmare in which Odd is grabbed by a band of faceless figures in bowling uniforms. Though Sommers handles Odd Thomas’ convoluted plotting with zippy slickness (subjective flashbacks and sped-up camera movements accompanied by “whoosh” sounds abound), it’s in these moments that his real strength as a filmmaker—a love of nifty effects, free of irony—comes to the forefront. That enthusiasm should be guiding a movie like Odd Thomas, not merely flavoring it.