24 Lies a Second: Short Stop

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Short Stop

It's surprising how often making a famously bad and unsuccessful movie does not end a career (let's skip over the fact that making a famously bad but extremely successful movie can give you a considerable boost, and take just a pico-second to reflect on the fact that Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway will soon be in UK cinemas). Everyone is allowed the occasional wobble, it seems, as long as said wobble is not too extreme. But sometimes a significant enough foul-up really does mean you'll never work in Hollywood again (at least, not on a big movie). The signs were bad for Josh Trank, director of the 2015 Fantastic Four film, but he has recently crawled back into view with a movie named Capone; M Night Shyamalan has likewise been cast out into the world of low-budget genre movies. At least they're still working.

Matthew Bright had a reasonable thing going on as the writer-director of films like Freeway (an updated version of the Red Riding Hood fable), until he made the movie that ended his career. Perhaps it would have been better had he been able to take his name off the credits, as he hoped, but (and here's why unionisation is a good thing, kids) not being a member of the DGA this option was not available to him. And so everyone who watched the 2003 film Tiptoes knew exactly who to blame.

The bizarre nature of Tiptoes and the reputation it has accrued means I have wanted to see it for over a decade, but the movie has very nearly been obliterated from history: I don't think it's ever been on TV in this country, it's not available to legally stream, and you will look in vain for the chance to buy it on DVD in certain regions. In the end I was forced to resort to watching a version of it which someone had dubbed into Polish (the general trajectory of the plot is still quite discernible).

There's a sense in which Tiptoes is a fairly straightforward comedy-drama with elements of romance to it. As it opens, the couple at the centre of the action are Steve and Carol. Steve trains firefighters for a living, while Carol is an independent, free-spirited artist. All is well, except for Carol's nagging concerns that despite their plans to marry, he has yet to introduce her to anyone in his family.

The reason for this becomes clear as we see Steve entering a convention centre which is full of – and here we must be careful to get our terminology right – short people. Yes, there is a gathering of short folk underway, their number including virtually Steve's entire family: he is the only person of normal stature in the clan. Even his twin brother Rolfe is short.

When Rolfe turns up at Carol's studio looking for Steve, she is naturally surprised, but both of them are perturbed about Steve's decision to keep quiet about his family's shortcomings. Is he ashamed of being the scion of such a diminutive clan? The issue becomes a pressing one when Carol discovers she is pregnant, and there is a strong possibility the child will also be short. Can Steve overcome his issues and fully commit to both the relationship and parenthood, or will Carol be forced to fall back on the help of Rolfe and the rest of the family?

Yeah, well, that sounds weird, doesn't it? I mean, I should say that the movie itself is a bit more tonally distinctive than it sounds – it's not like this is some earnest issue-of-the-week telemovie: the B-plot appears to concern a French Marxist biker short person played by Peter Dinklage, who engages in a wild affair with a free-spirited and open-minded woman played by Patricia Arquette (the scene in which the two of them consummate their relationship, to a reggae soundtrack, is not one which quickly or easily fades from the memory).

It does have some star power attached to it, too. Carol is played by Kate Beckinsale. Steve is played by Matthew McConaughey. And Rolfe is played by Gary Oldman.

(A brief pause is probably required at this point.)

Yes: Rolfe the short person is played by Gary Oldman, who is five-foot-nine (174cm, for metricalists) and thus not most obvious choice for the role. Oldman himself has said he thought it was a dream of a part, but admits that playing a short person was 'a stretch' (a perhaps infelicitous choice of words). He spends the majority of the film shuffling around on his knees, or kneeling down behind things, or with his lower body concealed inside furniture and tiny prop legs arranged in front of him. The prosthetics and so on are all acceptably well-done, but it's still obviously Gary Oldman on his knees attempting a role for which he is arguably not qualified. I mean, it's Oldman so he gives a great performance, as usual, but it's like watching a man attempting complex and subtle card-tricks while the building around him burns down: your attention is always being dragged elsewhere.

I'm not normally one to get too exercised about this whole issue of 'appropriate casting', but in this case it's a difficult thing to get past – this one creative decision sends the whole film into a spin, making it uproarious and risible even when it's trying to be serious. The presence of Dinklage really strips away the producers' possible defence that a capable short-person actor was not available (though to be fair, Dinklage has defended the casting of Oldman).

I suspect that at this point in his career, Matthew McConaughey was doing whichever script landed at the top of the pile on his doormat, but the presence of Kate Beckinsale is at least a little curious: apparently she agreed to do the film at a greatly reduced rate, provided she was allowed to wear her lucky hat on-camera. This sounds like a bluff to me, from someone who wasn't that keen on the project, but the director agreed (a row about the hat between the director and the producers ensued). Exactly what Kate Beckinsale's lucky hat looks like I'm not sure, as she explores several curious avenues of the milliner's art in the course of the movie; she is playing the type of character who tends to express their individuality by putting weird things on their head.

It's hard to imagine Tiptoes having been made with a different cast – the extant version does burn itself into the memory once seen – but even so, I think the audience would still have been in for a rocky ride with this movie. It's not just the casting that makes Tiptoes feel quite so off-kilter and peculiar, it's the script. Towards the end all the weirdness with French Marxist bikers and the sex lives of short people drops away and it turns into a rather contrived and sentimental melodrama, as Steve falls short of meeting his responsibilities and romance blooms between Carol and Rolfe. If, as some would have you believe, this is a rom-com, it's a rom-com where the main character abandons his wife and child and she then settles down with his short-person brother instead. Richard Curtis this is not.

No wonder the film has essentially vanished into obscurity. Is it worth watching? Well – if you're a particular admirer of Gary Oldman and his undoubted talents, then perhaps, but for everyone else this is the kind of film you only watch in order to confirm for yourself it actually exists.

We have had quite a few weird old movies over the course of the last fourteen months or so, mainly because – apart from for four months in summer and early autumn, and a brief spell before Christmas – the cinemas have been shut and new films, in a theatrical context, have not really been an option.

One of the things I have come to realise over this period is that the theatrical experience really does matter; this column is fundamentally about seeing new movies in a cinema. The prospect of carrying on with golden oldies or films from streaming sites indefinitely really doesn't appeal. The good news, then, is that the UK multiplexes are opening en masse as of next week. The bad news is that, largely due to the consequences of the pandemic, I am not in a position to get to any of them with anything like the frequency and ease necessary to keep the column going on a weekly basis. Hopefully this will change at some point in the next few months, but until it does, it would feel foolish and redundant to be wittering on about some schlock shocker from half a century ago while new films are playing. So, after what I think is a pretty decent run of over a decade with barely a week missed, I am putting 24 Lies a Second on hiatus, except when there is a particularly special occasion (I believe we are less than two months away from the next Fast and Furious movie, for instance). I fully expect to be back at some point, but until that time arrives, take care and stay safe.

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