TELLURIDE–Already being called a British “Big Chill,” Kenneth Branagh’s third feature is a sometimes funny, often cloying entertainment about a group of old friends who experience a year’s worth of crises in two days. Glib humor and heavy emphasis on sex could put this over with the dating crowd and thirtysomething couples, but reaction to this Goldwyn Christmas release will be decidedly mixed.
Script by Rita Rudner and Martin Bergman confines the action almost entirely to the country estate of Peter (Stephen Fry), a witty, charmingly dissolute young aristocrat who invites his college theatrical friends and their mates for a New Year’s weekend 10th reunion.
In a manner that smacks of both stage comedy and sitcoms, the various characters are paraded forward with their most humorous traits front and center.
Maggie (Emma Thompson) leaves photos of herself all over her home so her cat won’t miss her; Roger and Mary (Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton) can barely tear themselves away from their infant son; Sarah and Brian (Alphonsia Emmanuel, Tony Slattery), lovers of two weeks, can’t keep their clothes on or their hands off each other, and Andrew and TV star Carol (Branagh, Rudner) fly in from L.A., with Carol packing a gym’s worth of workout equipment and Roger letting fly with rude remarks.
As the eating and drinking proceed, all manner of former relationships, emotional traumas and secret agendas are revealed.
The intensely daffy Maggie literally foists herself upon the seemingly eligible Peter, only to be devastated to learn that he’s “not in the vagina business.” When Andrew is revealed to have had a long-ago fling with the sex-crazed Sarah, Carol goes into a terminal snit. Brian becomes tortured when Sarah cools on him as soon as he agrees to leave his wife for her.
And so it goes into the wee hours of the new year, when a terrible announcement abruptly sobers up all the remaining revelers.
Scripters have loaded the plot down with an array of troubles and complications suitable to all-out farce, but not to semi-realistic character comedy. Many of the lines and the shadings brought to them by these expert performers are good for some laughs, and pic has plenty of energy, but it can’t be taken as seriously as it wants to be.
The constant and boisterous horniness of Sarah and Brian is annoying and unfunny, but nothing compared to the running gag, if it actually is, of Mary calling home every other minute to see if her baby is okay. She and her laid-back husband are simply a drag.
Playing an insecure egotist and fitness freak who secretly raids the fridge, co-writer Rudner has given herself a lion’s share of the good bits and she carries off the Joan Collins-ish role in high style.
Branagh is slyly humorous, but both his career and motivation for staying with an overbearing woman are unexplored, resulting in a hollow character.
Most appealing are the ditzy Thompson, whose sudden transformation into a glamorpuss and subsequent quickie affair are jarring; Phyllida Law as the mansion’s dignified housekeeper; and Fry as the affable host.
Stylistically, Branagh and lenser Roger Lanser have gone in for long, uninterrupted, roving takes that sometimes allow for good character interaction but at other times are merely show-offy. Branagh also has little feel for how to integrate pop tunes with the story.