Published Jan 01, 2006Emily Hampshire’s performance in A Problem with Fear is a stunner — as funny, cartoon-ish and wholly original as Mira Sorvino’s star-making turn in Mighty Aphrodite. Hampshire’s Dot looks like Annette Funicello with fire engine red lipstick and braces — she’s a nerdy girl with a fierce sense of determination and a goofy speech impediment. She spends her days at the mall interviewing people on their "personal style" and haranguing her spineless boyfriend, Laurie (Paulo Costanzo), who is the protagonist of the film, but that hardly matters. If Hampshire is nominated for a Genie this year, the other contenders might just as well stay home.
The science fiction-y premise of A Problem with Fear centres around the multi-phobic Laurie, who wears a wristband "danger detector" that can alert him to everything from faulty elevators to an approaching mugger. But his urban paranoia is so potent it actually causes a "fear storm" in the city, so that if anyone around him is afraid of something happening (like a woman getting the hem of her dress caught in an escalator), it happens as if by an inadvertent act of will. As this epidemic spreads, we see a spectrum of "feared" events happening, from a guy getting his backpack caught in a subway door to people inexplicably walking the streets naked.
Director/co-writer Gary Burns has an oddball comic rhythm that works like gangbusters — his hyper-observant direction creates an atmosphere of lingering tension and he knows just when to fixate on a wonky line of dialogue (he doesn’t write "jokes," he lets his cast create them in their performances). A Problem with Fear was criminally maligned during the Toronto Film Festival, with most critics harping on its structural inadequacies (there’s really no third act to the story). But that shouldn’t detract from the considerable charms of this movie. It’s effortlessly slick and assured, and it features the funniest female performance I’ve seen all year. (Lions Gate)