In baseball terminology, the shift refers to when a left-handed power hitter who tends to pull the ball (in other words, hits the ball to right field, the shift is almost never used against right-handed batters) comes to the plate (such as Ryan Howard, David Ortiz, Adam Dunn, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, etc.) the infielders all move to the right. The third baseman becomes the shortstop and leaves the third base line open, the shortstop ends up on the right side of second base, the second baseman is basically playing back-up first base, and the first baseman is practically playing on the first base line.
Christian Alvart’s Case 39 is the movie equivalent of the shift, if it were employed entirely at random; trying a bit of trickery when playing the field, and really, this metaphor isn’t working at all. But at least you learned what a shift was.
Pretending there was a rhyme or reason behind the making of the long delayed Case 39 is ill-advised. The movie may have begun shooting in 2006, but it appears that re-shoots have been going on since then (the movie was released around the rest of the world in 2009), because star Renee Zellweger is clearly wearing a wig in certain scenes, her weight fluctuates from scene to scene, and she appears to have had various bits of plastic surgery throughout production, and you never know when she’ll look like a totally different person in the next shot. And those are just the cosmetic problems.
The movie begins as a goofy but sincere thriller about Emily Jenkins (Zellweger) a social worker for child protective services (who is somehow confused by all of the psychological jargon that goes with the job) who discovers that a little girl, Lillith (Jodelle Ferland), is being abused by her parents, who appear to be truly mentally imbalanced. When Jenkins finally convinces her cop buddy Mike (Ian McShane) to intervene, the parents have already locked Lillith in an oven with plans to cook her alive. These early scenes mix tension and chutzpah, it’s not often a mainstream studio thriller has a scene where a child is about to be thoroughly broiled. Of course Lillith is able to escape and the childless Emily petitions to adopt this sweet girl.
Yes, the movie resorts to the most obvious of emotional connections (aww, she’s going to fill that convenient hole in her life) and it really wants us to believe that a social worker would adopt one of her cases. The term far-fetched laughs at Case 39. And that’s before we see a bearded Bradley Cooper (looking like Jamie Kennedy), who is supposed to be a suave child psychologist who has eyes for Zellweger, but has been outfitted to look like the gay, cat loving, sexless best friend from any number of early ‘90s thrillers. It’s a funny moment when Lillith calls him smug, which is often true of Cooper’s performances in his more recent films like The Hangover or The A-Team, but this particular character can’t even rise to the energy and screen presence level of smug. It’s a further unintentionally funny moment when we overhear Cooper unironically explaining to one of his young patients, “that’s what a restraining order is.”
Actually, there’s no way to know if that’s what the original purpose of the scene was, as so much of Case 39 is established with dialogue where we can’t see the actor’s face. And it makes it easier to explain why the movie pulls a “shift” about halfway through, leaving behind the potentially interesting material about how the social worker/child psychiatrist/police triumvirate work together and becomes a generic movie about demons. Enter woeful CGI hornets and lousy green screen work, fake scares and loud noises, shotgun suicides and car chases, and everything else* that the TV spot is trying to sell you**. The advertising has no hint of the unaware cheese and exploitation of the first hour, which is at least moderately amusing, and settles for the highlights of the second hour without hinting at any of the unintended messages the disastrous third act provides.
If I’m to understand the movie as it is presented, demons do not enjoy passive aggression, it only enrages them further, and if you want to avoid being the victim of a demon, it’s best if you’re neither a nice nor smart person, because then the demon has nothing to work with. I wonder if demons know about the shift.
* Like demons who are omniscient and all powerful, except when they’re not.
** Case 39 has almost the exact same contrived opening misdirection that Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners uses, where the parents are initially shown to be vile abusers, but turn out to be the victims of their child’s supernatural wrath.