Aussie director John Duigan (“Flirting,” “Sirens”) returns to the land of his birth to pleasant but soft results with U.K.-set “The Leading Man,” a light romantic comedy among London legit types. There’s much to savor here in the performances from the tony international cast, including a charm-to-spare outing by rock singer Jon Bon Jovi as a manipulative Hollywood star, but pic leaves a feeling of not fully realizing its zingier potential, both in dialogue and pacing. Reviews will be crucial for this modest Brit production, which looks to attract equally modest B.O. in Anglo markets.
Rehearsals are in progress for “The Hit Man,” latest opus by famous playwright Felix (Lambert Wilson), whose perky young lover, actress Hilary (Thandie Newton), is hired for a leading role by the director, Humphrey (Barry Humphries). This further puts the squeeze on Felix, who’s under pressure from Hilary to leave his understanding wife, Elena (Anna Galiena), and three kids.
Enter boyishly handsome movie star Robin Grange (Bon Jovi), who’s come to London to legitimize his career by doing a stint on the boards. Roving of eye and smooth of demeanor, Robin soon sizes up the tensions in the troupe and jokily offers to seduce Felix’s wife so she can get back her self-confidence and make it easier for Felix to leave her.
In desperation, Felix finally accepts his offer, and Robin goes into action like a highly tuned machine. Complications start when Robin also starts putting the make on Hilary, and Felix gets increasingly fraught when Elena, under Robin’s spell, gets too self-confident by half. As opening night looms, Felix decides the Tinseltown thesp has to be stopped.
There’s enough plot material and accomplished acting talent here for a slick, pacy romantic comedy which “The Leading Man” isn’t. Duigan, whose pics have generally been stronger on characterization than form, goes for an easy tempo, dialogue (by his sister Virginia) that’s serviceable, occasionally funny but lacking a strong personality, and a look that does the job but has no guiding style.
At the end of the day, it’s the individual performances that linger in the mind rather than the pic as a whole. Weakest is Wilson as the playwright, who’s more suited to drama than the kind of harried semi-comedy that’s required here; he’s OK, but doesn’t look comfortable in the part. Galiena is fine as his foreign wife, bringing warmth and maturity to a role that becomes more pivotal as the story unfolds.
One of Blighty’s brightest young actresses, Newton, in her third Duigan outing following “Flirting” and “The Journey of August King,” is good as Hilary, though a tad too instinctive for such highly scripted material.
On the evidence of this and “Moonlight and Valentino,” Bon Jovi could have a screen future if he continues to make the right choices. Melding easily with an experienced cast, and not dominating an essentially ensemble movie, he makes the smarmy Robin a charmer as well as a complete no-values Lothario.
Other parts, by veterans like Humphries, Patricia Hodge (as a waspish actress) and David Warner (a seen-it-all thespian) are basically bits.
Production values are on the modest side, and the blowup from 16mm noticeably grainy. Jean-Francois Robin’s photography gives the pic a very London flavor without being too touristy, and Edward Shearmur’s music jogs things along satisfactorily. Caroline Hanania’s legit sets are colorful.
Buffs will note a small in-joke at the end, where Nicole Kidman appears briefly on a TV set as an Oscar presenter. The Aussie actress made one of her early marks in Duigan’s 1990 “Flirting.”