Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant 

Lack Magic: An appealing premise turns to inoffensive fantasy.

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John C. Reilly as a vampire? How can that not be funny? And it is funny, in a gentler, more unassuming way than you might expect from screenwriters Paul Weitz and Brian Helgeland, who've individually given us dark and brooding (Helgeland's Mystic River) or sharp and satirical (Weitz's American Dreamz) but never anything so modest in scope and ambition as this inoffensive fantasy.

Weitz and HelgelandWeitz also directsare working from a series of Irish young-adult novels, The Saga of Darren Shan, with an obviously appealing premise: Wouldn't it be, like, super-cool if you could get away from boring ol' adolescence by becoming a vampire? Darren (Chris Massoglia) sneaks out one night to see a traveling freak show with his best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), which doesn't go as well as an evening's entertainment should. Now, Steve is pissed at Darren, because he totally wanted to be a vampire, and Darren is undead, which he only agreed to in order to save Steve from ...

Well, the details don't matter. What matters is that poor Darren isn't terribly interesting. He just gets buffeted around a world that teases us with hints of things wittier and wiser and more intriguing than we ever get to see. Darren goes to work with Reilly's 200-year-old vampire, Larten Crepsley, in that traveling freak show, which is full of what could potentially be wickedly fun characters such as Patrick Fugit's snake-boy and Salma Hayek's psychic lady.

Darren's teenage woes have nothing on them, but we're stuck listening to him whine. He doesn't even seem all that engrossed in the strange new world he finds himself in; at least Harry Potter knew to take advantage of his phenomenal luck. It all feels very small and surprisingly indifferent to its own potential magic, like the pilot for a TV series that might find its groove in its second season but isn't anywhere near there yet.

CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT

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John C. Reilly, Chris Massoglia, Patrick Fugit
Rated PG-13

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