The Sex Edition
Hello again everyone, and welcome back to the column that you can safely ignore. With the Oscars finally upon us this week, we truly stand upon the cusp of the cinematic seasons: behind us lie the worthy, classy, lovingly-crafted films studios have put out in the hope of picking up golden statues or masks, while ahead looms a load of old dross and some quirky stuff, filling in the months until the kick-off of blockbuster season in May. And we have evidence of both this week.
More evidence of the British Film Council's unerring instinct when it comes to investing millions of pounds in complete crap is provided with the release of Andy Humphries' Sex Lives of the Potato Men, which I unhesitatingly award the title of Worst Film I've Seen Since I Started Writing For The Post. It possesses all the wit, charm, and entertainment value of being harpooned in the scrotum.
This plotless shambles revolves around the doings of a quartet of Birmingham spud delivery men. Johnny Vegas (who's mainly notable, filmically, for failing to get the part of Sam Gamgee) plays Dave, a lazy drunk who's just been chucked out by his wife and is now desperate to play the field a bit. Mackenzie Crook (from Pirates of the Caribbean, although come to think of it he could probably have played Gollum without the need for CGI) plays Ferris, who's giving his former mother-in-law personal services in lieu of rent. Sam Kisgart (from The League of Gentlemen) plays Jeremy, who's hilariously stalking his ex-girlfriend. And Dominic Coleman plays Tolley, an enthusiastic w**ker (in every sense). They are all obsessed with sex, one way or another.
And that's pretty much the entirety of the movie, which is pretty consistently squalid and unfunny for the duration of its (thankfully brief) running time. There really is not any plot to speak of, just a series of sketch-like vignettes with a few running jokes linking them together - I use the word 'joke' both broadly and charitably. Humphries, the auteur responsible for this wretched farrago, is under the impression that 'I'd be a workaholic if I wasn't so lazy' is a passably witty line, and his idea of a sight-gag is a close-up of a gob of snot on the end of someone's finger. So Ferris is nearly fellated by an octogenarian, Jeremy kidnaps his ex's dog, Dave turns up for a threesome only to find he won't be the only male participant, and the audience remains stolidly untroubled by the urge to laugh.
To be fair, to begin with it just looks like Sex Lives is going to just be charmingly awful like many British comedies before it, but the truth soon sinks in: this is really determinedly worthless and awful, a film which treats both its audience and its characters with utter contempt. That said, it would take even less talent than Humphries possesses to make a film with this strong a cast (as well as Crook, Vegas and Kisgart, Julia Davis and Lucy Davis also appear) that doesn't raise a few smiles. And so it proves: there is the occasional mildly funny moment, but - tellingly - most of these spring from broad physical comedy, where the film manages to tear itself away from its schoolboy obsession with sex. But these moments are very few and very far between.
Humphries' direction is almost completely artless, his sole good idea being to make copious use of classic pop and rock (Motorhead, the Coral, Carl Douglas) on the soundtrack in order to hide how ropey the rest of the film is. As diversionary tactics go this is marginally effective. But I really wonder if it's worth even trying to have a domestic film industry if the best we can come up with is total crap like this. Clearly inspired by all those mid-70s Robin Asquith sex comedies and late period Carry On films, Sex Lives Of The Potato Men fails to meet even their risibly low standards. For pity's sake, avoid.
Gender on the Agenda
And so, thankfully, we move on to Nancy Meyers' Something's Gotta Give, a somewhat oblique title for a film which makes no bones about Having A Point To Make. Fortunately the chosen media take the forms of two of the most watchable actors still working, so it comes across as a lot less didactic than it might.
Jack Nicholson is not at all typecast as Harry, a sixty-something hip-hop tycoon and libidinous rogue, who has an eye for the ladies (specifically those under thirty). On a weekend trip to the family beach-house of his latest conquest (Amanda Peet) he is unfortunate enough to run into her formidable mother Erica (Diane Lah-Di-Dah Keaton) who takes a dim view of his womanising and generally raffish behaviour. It is just his luck to have a heart attack that same evening, and even worse that his cardiologist (Keanu Reeves - no, really, Keanu Reeves) prescribes that he should stay in the area till he recovers - the only available residence being with Erica. But, and you'd never see this coming, it seems that there's a bit of chemistry between Harry and Erica. Could there possibly be romance on the horizon?
Well, my usual goodnaturedness has been mashed out of me by the previous film, so let's not beat about the bush: Something's Gotta Give is overlong and a bit smug and not nearly as witty or insightful as it thinks it is. The characters are almost exclusively wealthy and well-educated Caucasians, all with a quite staggering degree of emotional articulacy. Given that the central topic under discussion - the subtle charms of the older lady - does not exactly possess the same pressing urgency as climate control or international debt relief, it could be argued that this is a case of much ado about nothing. It's also an openly partisan film: Nicholson is depicted throughout as a priapic old rogue who must mend his ways, and most of the central relationship is seen from Keaton's emotional perspective. (There's also the odd way that the Nicholson/Peet liaison is implicitly frowned upon while a Keaton/Reeves dalliance is swooningly approved of.)
However, these criticisms aside, this is a polished and mostly intelligent film, with some very funny moments (most of them courtesy of Nicholson). Most of these come near the beginning of the film, which rambles off into much more straightforward (not to mention sentimental) romantic drama territory as it goes on, losing much of its sharpness and wit along the way. As I mentioned up the page, it also seems about fifteen minutes too long.
It stays entirely watchable throughout, though, and this is mainly due to two perfectly-judged performances from Nicholson and Keaton, whose presence together was enough to remind me of Hollywood's 70s golden age. It's an exceptionally classy double-act, with Nicholson's armoury of Jack-isms complementing Keaton's more naturalistic turn extremely well. The two stars really get their teeth into the script and probably make it seem a lot sharper and more intelligent than it really is. Having said that, it's difficult to judge whether Diane Keaton genuinely deserves her Oscar win/nomination [Shazz, delete one of these as applicable come Monday morning, would you?] - she is good, but I suspect nostalgia has played its part, and in case she often seems to be recycling bits of her Annie Hall performance, for which she's already won an Oscar.
Most of the rest of the cast aren't that impressive, not getting the material the leads do. But Frances McDormand has her moments as Keaton's sister, and Keanu... well, Keanu gets bulldozed off the screen by Nicholson, as you would expect, and my initial thought that he'd made the interesting choice of playing the cardiologist as a surfer-dude only lasted as long as it took me to remember that he plays every part - FBI agent, techno-Messiah, 19th century English lawyer - as a surfer-dude. But it's nice to see he's still getting work.
There's nothing actually bad about Something's Gotta Give - it's polished, entertaining, amusing and articulate, and it's driven by very assured performances from two bona fide movie legends. But it does take a long time to come to a rather predictable conclusion, and has very little of genuine originality to say for itself. A rom-com with a bit too much rom and not enough com, but still a film of some substance.