The Review: John Landis is responsible for some of the finest comedies of the Seventies and early Eighties. Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places would be a fine legacy for anyone, but then Landis also has horror chops, having unleashed An American Werewolf on London and the world. Somehow, though, Landis seemed to use up all his good creative instincts during that fertile period, and his career ever since has languished in mediocrity. Coming To America, over 20 years ago, may be his last even half-decent effort, so maybe it makes sense in that context to make something that’s both horror and comedy. Sadly, for everyone concerned, what we have ended up with is neither.
It all seemed so promising, especially when Simon Pegg and David Tennant were announced as playing the titular duo. Tennant, of course, departed to be replaced by Andy Serkis, in a move which Tennant must be very grateful for whatever scheduling gods forced his replacement. Pegg is generally good value and Serkis mugs appropriately, but neither feels especially comfortable with the material or, indeed, their accents. Burke and Hare were from Northern Ireland, a fact that’s barely discernible from Serkis’ accent and only slightly more so from Pegg’s.
At least they fare better than the love interest Isla Fisher, who manages to be Dick Van Dyke bad in terms of both accent and performance. There are some gems in the supporting cast, including Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry as competitors in medicine (and in a much more interesting movie) and Jessica Hynes, who seems to be about the only person to have correctly captured the broad tone that Landis was aiming for as Serkis’ wife. The rest of the cast is also filled with “ooh, is that…?” faces of varying familiarity; the tragedy is that the game of spot-the-random-famous-face quickly becomes more interesting than the actual movie.
It’s not broad enough to be successful as a farce, or funny enough to work as a straight comedy. The story itself would quite happily lend to straight horror, but sadly the gruesome moments feel like flicking between a horror marathon and CBeebies, so oddly juxtaposed and ill-considered are they against the rest of the piece; and critically, there’s really not enough of them. On top of all that, the liberties with the truth are so extensive that only one major character actually has their real life fate bestowed upon them, and the alternate fates conjured up for the rest don’t feel anywhere interesting enough to justify the changes. Somewhere in here there was a great movie trying to get out, but sadly all that’s left is for future film scholars to pore over this one’s festering corpse and ponder where it all went wrong.
Why see it at the cinema: If you like to see some of the greatest talent of British film today, plus Ronnie Corbett, dying slowly on their backsides, then this is the film for you.
The Score: 4/10
The Review: Many famous actors, including Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Ross from Friends, have gone on to carve out careers as directors as well as being well-known actors. If you’re as recognisable an actor as Bobcat Goldthwait, then it’s understandable you may want to spend some time working behind the camera, not least because people’s expectations of you may be a little set in stone. Goldthwait attempted to change some of those with his first feature in fifteen years, the 2006 movie Sleeping Dogs, which was a twisted black comedy, and hasn’t strayed too far from this with his latest effort, but what he does have this time are some big names, not least Robin Williams.
Williams’ Lance Clayton is the father who’s trying to raise a teenage son on his own. So far, so mainstream, but when our first introduction to him is Dad walking in on son while he indulges in a little autoerotic asphyxiation. Shocking for him, and a good determinant as to your tolerance for the material. There are a lot of more traditional concerns on show, though; Lance is secretly dating a fellow teacher, but she may have other men on her mind, and his poetry class is failing at school. He’s also unable to get anything published, and is on the verge of giving up his dream of being a writer. Everything comes back to Lance’s son, and his relentless dysfunctionality threatens to derail what hopes Lance has left of any success in the rest of his life.
Williams has done manically funny and cheekily serious to strong effect in the past, but here gets to be sardonic and world-weary, especially as his relationship with his son evolves. He’s on great form here, and Daryl Sabara erases any memories of his cute Spy Kids days with a full commitment to being completely unlovable and utterly reprehensible. The rest of the cast do good work, although there are few other standouts in the acting department (unless you count Bobcat Goldthwait, whose cameo appearance late on is monumentally distracting, mainly because he is Bobcat Goldthwait). Goldthwait allows the story room to breathe, and doesn’t add too many showy touches, but instead showcases the dark vein of humour to its best.
There is, however, a significant second act twist which the trailer doesn’t spoil, and so I won’t either, but safe to say that twist does take things to some more deliciously dark places. The ending may feel at first as if it lacks the courage of the convictions of the earlier developments, but it is ultimately true to all the characters, and just as satisfying if slightly more twee than the rest of the material has led you to expect. On this form, though, any more Williams / Goldthwait collaborations would be most welcome.
Why see it at the cinema: Plenty of good, solid laughs to share with your fellow cinemagoers, and it’s always good to see a good Robin Williams movie back in the cinema.
The Score: 8/10