I’ve become increasingly fascinated with Rainn Wilson’s career choices in recent years. Every now & then he’ll put in great dramatic character work (like in last year’s excellent psychological horror The Boy), but for the most part Wilson’s choices in movie roles seem to amount to almost Dwight Schrute levels of misanthropic nerdiness.He played a low-rent superhero in James Gunn’s Super, a megalomaniac supervillain in the AI sci-fi cheapie Uncanny, a depressed schlub in the metalhead-oriented dark comedy Hesher, etc. It’s possible that Wilson is being offered roles on the nerd spectrum because of his years as Dwight Schrute, but either way his non-Office work has been fascinating if not only to watch him build a King Nerd catalog of niche projects. Wilson is a great actor I’d love to see get put to bigger purpose in high profile dramas from auteur directors (a Paul Thomas Anderson project would be a perfect fit, to be honest), but for now I genuinely enjoy seeing what niche, nerdy indie production he’ll pop up in next.
To that point, I was delighted to see Rainn Wilson star as a romantic foil in last year’s child zombie horror comedy Cooties. Wilson fills a role that’s more or less legally reserved for David Koechner in these kinds of productions. A small town hick with an ego that’s outsized only by his pic-up truck, Wilson’s villainous cad is a perfectly-casted alpha male counterpoint to Elijah Wood’s diminutive coward novelist protagonist. While working his way through the manuscript of a hilariously inept-sounding novel, Wood’s intellectual weasel protagonist returns to his home town of Fort Chicken, Illinois. Known more for its chicken farming industry than its mental facilities, Chicken Fort is sort of a professional step back for our lowly hero, who has been pursuing a career as a literary author in New York City. He takes a summer job as a substitute teacher along with a cast of eccentrics who most certainly don’t belong in front of children (including among them Jack McBrayer, Nassim Padrad, Allison Pill, and, yes, Rainn Wilson). This comedic setup is a little awkward & labored in away that can be distracting, but Cooties eventually finds a rhythm when it introduces its true bread & butter: zombie mayhem. An infected chicken nugget from one of Fort Chicken’s less-than-stellar food processing plants leads to an outbreak of juvenile mutation that claims all children in sight into its murderous army & dismembers every adult who dares exist in its general vicinity. Lots of gore & viscera ensue, as does grade school-themed horror comedy.
What best separates Cooties from the 10,001 zombie horror comedies of the last decade is its gleeful exploitation of its grade school setting. Its tiny child terrors are foul mouthed monsters before they’re infected by a rotten chicken nugget & turned into bloodthirsty cretins. They eat boogers, rough house, and bully each other with teasing like “If my butthole had a butthole, that’s what you’d look like.” When the titular cooties epidemic first spreads across the playground it’s almost mistakable for typical childhood play. It’s only until you squint closer that you realize the kids are using as severed head for a tether ball, eyeballs for marbles, intestines for jump rope, etc. Cooties may be a dirt cheap horror comedy, but it finds a downright lyrical, disorienting visual language in the spread of its central epidemic. You feel like a little kid who just spun too fast while playing ring around the rosie watching the film’s violence unfold. It’s fun to watch as a horror fan, but it must’ve been even more fun to film for the little kids who got the chance, given how much of the film’s violence resembles typical playground activity.
I could single out almost any performance in this film as being of interest, as its small cast of oddball comedic personalities are an eternally underutilized crew of talents. Elijah Wood in particular has been building just as much of a nerdy career & even cosigned this film as a producer. Still, I think Rainn Wilson’s role as the brutish alpha male romantic foil is the film’s most significant addition to the cast in terms of his career. There’s a point in Cooties when Wilson suits up in Turbo Kid-style armor using gymnasium equipment (directly referencing the action film suiting-up montages of classic titles like Commando) that pretty much seals his position as the films’ most interesting player. Wilson brings a highly specific form of hearty enthusiasm to the screen here is less like Dwight Schrute than it is like his horror geek victim in House of 1000 Corpses. I like to think that the reason he keeps popping up in these genre pics is that he’s a genuine fan & is more than merely collecting paychecks. Given the limited artistic & financial scope of films like Cooties, it’s doubtful that he’s in the nerd market for the money, but it does look like he’s having fun.