Some movies are very up-front with you about just how nauseatingly pretentious they’re going to be. For Phantom Halo, the tip-off was the lead characters’ names: Beckett (Luke Kleintank) and Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) Emerson.
Yes, technically the name-check of Samuel Beckett in their first names came from their father, Warren (Sebastian Roché), but he wouldn’t have had the idea if writer Antonia Bogdanovich — yes, like that Bogdanovich — hadn’t put it into his head, and there’s no similar cover for dropping Emerson’s name in there as well. It’s a choice that screams out for attention: “Look at how cultured I am, that I know of these great writers.” And it’s usually one that backfires, since, as in this case, it doesn’t tend to happen in writing that’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Emerson or Beckett on its own merits.
Warren was a classically trained Shakespearean actor — digging in even deeper on the name-dropping here — who has fallen into gambling and alcohol addiction. He’s taught his sons to recite Shakespeare as he once did, and now Samuel busks with some well-known monologues while Beckett picks pockets in the crowd that gathers. They try to save what money they can to feed and shelter their dysfunctional family, but their father keeps finding the stash and gambling it away before going even deeper into debt to tough guys like Roman (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and “Smashmouth” (Tobin Bell).
But when Beckett runs into “Little Larry” (Jordan Dunn) he thinks he sees another way out. Larry’s mother’s abusive boyfriend, Donny (Ashley Hamilton), runs a counterfeiting operation, and Larry operates the presses in his mother’s basement. Donny doesn’t print any big bills, but Larry proposes that he and Beckett get their own supplies and use the presses to make lots of fake C-notes. Then Beckett can use those to buy off his father’s debts and save the family. And in the process he can romance Larry’s mother (Rebecca Romijn).
Of course, passing a single bad bill at a store is a far different matter than laundering tens of thousands of dollars. As bad as Donny is, there’s probably a reason he doesn’t print more money than he does — a possibility neither Larry nor Beckett think about until it’s too late. But from our perspective it’s utterly predictable, and utterly boring to watch the fall of these characters when we’ve been given no reason to care about them in the first place.
The only one we care about is Samuel, who plays mostly as a helpless puppy-dog. He may have learned Shakespearean delivery from his father, but his real literary passion is a comic book — Phantom Halo — which gives him the inspiration to rally his brother and fight back when the going gets tough near the end. Beyond that, there’s nothing particularly distinctive about the book itself. It’s the sort of device used by a writer who wants to generously offer comics a niche of usefulness beside “real” literature, but can’t be bothered to actually touch one herself.
Which is a real shame, since some of them contain some truly insightful character building and storytelling, and even some original ideas. Phantom Halo has none of these; it’s content to show off a veneer of erudition while cribbing tropes left and right and taking the path of cheap melodrama. It’s enough to make me wonder what it could possible have in common with a real Shakespearean tragedy. Oh, the hubris.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.