Lord forgive me for starting with the most obvious question, but in the case of Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, it is the most obvious because it is also the most dumbfounding: how is it that one goes from directing the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture to making a direct-to-streaming children's movie for Disney that could not possibly be more overt about positioning itself as just another piece of content to keep the user based distracted from turning off their subscription for at least one more fortnight? And not in the sense that, say, John G. Avildsen makes Rocky in 1976, and then his career twists this way and corkscrews that way and yada yada yada, it's 1989 and he's Razzie-nominated for The Karate Kid, Part III. Timmy Failure is literally the very next project Tom McCarthy has directed since his 2015 Oscar-winner Spotlight, absent some television work (two episodes of 13 Reasons Why, which he executive produces, in 2019) and some writing (co-creating the miniseries The Loudest Voice, and doing a pass on Disney's Christopher Robin). And is there any possible way that this was what he truly wanted to cash in that capital on? Because if you really want to direct a Disney movie and you have a name and a well-liked career behind you, I'm pretty sure they'll let you do that anytime. You don't need to use your Oscar points for it.

Nevertheless, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made it is, the sixth feature film in a career that started in the unbelievably delicate and thoughtful character-driven indies The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007), before drifting maybe a little too close to mainstream banality with Win Win (2011), and then sharply swerving off-course and face-planting in a pile of cow shit with The Cobbler (2014). So hey, that's something we can say that's unambiguously positive about Timmy Failure: it is by no means the worst film from the director of The Cobbler. Though it is with no small amount of regret and the appropriate degree of hushed horror that I propose that Timmy Failure is closer to The Cobbler than it is to anything else McCarthy has directed thus far.

Timmy Failure (Winslow Fegley) - that's his actual name, it's not some cruel nickname nor an ironic superhero-like pseudonym - is an 11-year-old boy living with his mom (Ophelia Lovibond) in Portland, and if there is any way in which you can even start to glimpse the old McCarthy in any of this, it's in the very mild, thoughtful location photography of that city, capturing all of its storied weirdness in a gentle, kid-friendly way. Timmy, as he explains in his prattling voiceover that, I am fairly confident, takes up more than 50% of all his dialogue, and possibly more than 50% of all the words spoken by anybody in the film, fancies himself a hard-boiled private detective, which is one major strand of his fantasy life; the other is that he is accompanied at all times by a fully-grown polar bear named Total. And for this reason, he has named his detective agency, with an acutely aggressive sense of defensive irony, "Total Failure".

There is, sort of, no actual story here. Timmy loses his mom's Segway - won in a church raffle, and the only nice thing that the desperately broke Failures own - while investigating the death of the class hamster that he was to have taken over from its present caretaker. And he and his best (and maybe only) friend Rollo (the mononymous Kei, whose agent needs to talk him into getting a more Googleable name) go around trying to find it, in defiance of all adult authority, convincing themselves through a combination of hasty conclusions and misunderstandings that the Segway was taken by Russian spies, who may have one of their agents in Timmy's own class. This plays out over the course of 99 indescribably long minutes (as the film reached its evident finish line, I find myself mildly exhausted and surprised by how lanky the pacing was; and then I realised there was literally an entire act left to go), which largely consist of Timmy insisting on the real, physical existence of his fantasy world in such myopic terms that it starts to border on sociopathy. The closest analogue I can come up with is the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, which feels like it might even be deliberate: the author of the Timmy Failure book series and this film's co-writer, Stephan Pastis, is a newspaper cartoonist himself, and an acquaintance of Calvin creator Bill Watterson.

The difference is that Calvin is six years old, and a line drawing. Timmy, in the movie, is a flesh-and-blood human on the brink of adolescence, and this get us to the main, overwhelming problem with Timmy Failure: it has a wildly, indescribably unlikable protagonist. Seriously, Timmy is just the absolute worst: he is responsible for the financial devastation of one adult and the implied mental breakdown of another, and he storms through every one of his scenes with a hellbent focus on preserving the sanctity of his fantasies such that he seems genuinely incapable of recognising that other human beings have inner lives. "Border" on sociopathy, did I say? Nah, Timmy is a full-fledged sociopath, and the jaw-dropping thing is that the movie never seems to see this as a problem, nor maybe even realise that it's going on. Certainly, it never does anything with this - Timmy learns nothing, nobody around him learns anything, we learn nothing. We just watch as he steamrolls his way across the script, refusing to bend an inch in his fanciful, comic brittleness. It's not impossible to see where the humor might lie in all of this; the arch way Timmy presents himself (and it should be mentioned, while Fegley is being asked to do some hellaciously off-putting things in creating the character, he's doing them quite well, and I assume the glaring, brick-faced way he squats in front of the camera is exactly what his director asked for), with its perfect deadpan joke construction and glacial pacing of beats, feels sort of like the early WesΒ  Anderson, or the other ultra-dry ironists of American indie cinema in the early '00s. Which is exactly when McCarthy got his start!

Except he wasn't any kind of ironist, dry or otherwise, but someone ferociously attuned to the small behaviors of everyday life, and it turns out he has no deft hand at all for childish fantasy. Which again, we already sort of knew from The Cobbler, a magical realist fable played like a funeral oration. In the case of Timmy Failure, he approaches Timmy's brittleness with such a straightforward lack of playfulness that he doesn't seem like a kid with an overclocked imagination, he seems like a raging little monster, bereft of any sense of humor about himself. And yet, the film never aligns itself with him, either: we know, and every character who isn't just baffled by his intransigent weirdness knows that he's a goofy little moron who causes only trouble, and so the film basically ends up mocking him behind his back.

So, just to recap: the 11-year-old is a rotten little asshole, and the film he's in openly sneers at him for it. If that sounds unbearably sour, well frankly that's exactly what it is. Timmy Failure wants to be about the playful boundlessness of childhood, but it's just about grinding our way through an hour and a half in the company of of an irritating, unlikable egotist, who not even the powers of Adorable Kid-hood are able to make remotely tolerable company. Maybe there is an absurdist or wholeheartedly ironic version of this movie that's genuinely funny; maybe there's even one of those options that preserves the kid-friendly vibe this is going for. But the actually existing Timmy Failure is airless and brittle, an '00s-style quirky adventure made with inauthentic, cynical quirk, maniacally forced and unconvincing fantastic whimsy, and a genuinely meanspirited, inhumane screenplay. I guess I'm impressed that something this prickly could manage to escape from the Disney factory, but I certainly hope that there's not more where this came from.