This dark-toned semi-comedic Welsh coming-of-age movie was adapted from a novel by Joe Dunthorne. It seemed to me that the transition from literature to cinema was less than seamless. There is a helluva lot of voiceover from the lead character, for example – this sort of wordiness is never ideal in an essentially visual medium. However, this is but a minor gripe amongst a whole lotta major ones.
The film starts promisingly enough. Duffel-coat-wearing misfit adolescent Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) fancies himself as a cynical intellectual/philosopher but his inner romantic emerges in an amusing suicide fantasy, which is a veritable orgy of self-pity. His classmates are shattered, particularly the girls, whose extravagant grieving is accompanied by spontaneous blubbered eulogies. The grief at his tragic passing is contagious, infecting his whole home town, then the nation as the mourning builds to Princess Di proportions. We’ve seen this sort of thing plenty of times before, but it’s funny neverthless.
You can pretty well predict the general shape of the narrative. Enter a love interest, Jordana, played by Yasmin Paige. Add complications, as the road to love turns rocky. Chuck in some parental probs. You get the idea.
This predictability is offset by some quirkiness that I found try-hard and often lacking in credibility, even within the offbeat fictional world of the movie. For example, Oliver’s parents, Lloyd (Noah Taylor) and Jill (Sally Hawkins), are as dull and staid as they come (needlessly so), yet their marriage is thrown into crisis when Jill falls for old flame Graham (Paddy Considine), a self-styled new age guru specialising in colour-aura therapy. The Jill-Graham match is ridiculous. Even less believable is Jill’s clipped off-the-cuff confession to Oliver that she has given her old beau a hand job “because he was tense.” Massively out of character, not funny. Just silly.
Ditto Oliver’s plan to poison Jordana’s dog to prepare her for mourning her cancer-stricken mother’s death. Real quirky, but given Oliver’s demonstrated intelligence, credible? Nah. And again, not funny. There’s a lot more to dark comedy than being crudely black for the sake of it. Either it needs to push further than this so that it’s beyond outrageous and therefore tips over into humour because there’s nowhere else for it to go, or more thought needs to be invested in the setup and characters.
Indeed, one of the big problems with the film is the characters. None of them are endearing, except for Oliver perhaps, and then only in small measure. Jordana has eczema, is surly and temperamental, a bit of a bully, and a low-grade pyromaniac with a thing for singeing the hairs on her boyfriend’s legs. Off the wall, yes a little, interesting not really. Her insurmountable flaw as a character, though, is that she is just plain unlikeable. Oliver’s father Lloyd is a shut-down wishy washy appendage to the action (not unlike Barry Otto in Strictly Ballroom, but without the redeeming past glories or courage to reclaim himself). Mother Jill is so slight as a character she’s not much more than a sketch. Guru Graham is a cartoon. You don’t care about any of them, which of course greatly limits the dramatic and comedic potential of the movie.
The story runs out of puff half way through. I was left feeling quite bored, and focusing on elements that might have blended into the background in a more emotionally engaging movie: for example, the irritatingly dominant and oh-so-indie soundtrack from the Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner. Hiply enervated, tiresome. And, like the movie, too ironic and self-consciously cool for his own good.
Director Richard Ayoade has won acclaim for his contributions to TV comedies including The Mighty Boosh and The IT Crowd (I thought his character in the latter was a standout). This is his first feature movie and it shows. I wanted to like it more, but alas he’s undersold his talent with this debut.
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