The "Full Monty" formula gets a fresh and inventive spin in "Still Crazy," a chucklesome, warmly observed comedy about five middle-aged losers who reassemble their rock band that broke up in the '70s. Shot and played in a low-key, almost offhand style, but with plenty of typically British humor from the pens of veteran scripters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, this small, character-driven item has the makings of a local click that could work internationally, though careful marketing and word of mouth will be crucial.

The “Full Monty” formula gets a fresh and inventive spin in “Still Crazy,” a chucklesome, warmly observed comedy about five middle-aged losers who reassemble their rock band that broke up in the ’70s. Shot and played in a low-key, almost offhand style, but with plenty of typically British humor from the pens of veteran scripters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, this small, character-driven item has the makings of a local click that could work internationally, though careful marketing and word of mouth will be crucial.

Pic opened wide Oct. 30 in Blighty, where it performed below expectations in its first frame in the face of strong opposition from the 25-year reissue of “The Exorcist.” The film will be released by Sony Dec. 11 in L.A. for Oscar qualification, with limited national release to follow in January.

“Still Crazy” has been labeled by several English crix as a Brit “This Is Spinal Tap,” but, apart from its basic theme of resurrecting an old act, director Brian Gibson steers clear of the pseudo-rockumentary aspects of Rob Reiner’s 1984 spoof, with its knowing insider jokes and sendup of the music biz’s grosser side. Instead, the traditional feature-film script reaches back to Clement and La Frenais’ background in British sitcoms, with the laughs coming from acute observation of the characters’ foibles and weaknesses rather than from sending up the industry per se (which is hardly dealt with). If you were around at the time, fine, but it’s not necessary to be an aging rock fan to enjoy this likable little picture.

As such, it’s a slowly engrossing, gently comedic portrait of a bunch of washed-up rockers whose comeback is dogged by the same tensions that led to their acrimonious breakup 21 years earlier. With only a few flashbacks, but with better-defined characters, film says far more in its own way about the ’70s Brit-rock scene and its self-destructive qualities than the overhyped “Velvet Goldmine.”

Intro’d in v.o. by their former roadie, Hughie (an exuberant Billy Connolly), Strange Fruit was a classic rock band, riven by drugs, booze, egos and sex, that was finished in 1977 by “divine intervention” at an open-air festival — when a bolt of lightning canceled the gig. For 20 years, the band members went their separate ways, until one day the son of the original fest promoter bumps into keyboard player Tony (Stephen Rea, sporting an Englishaccent), now selling condoms in Spain, and suggests the Fruits hold a reunion concert at the same outdoor event that proved to be their last show.

In London, Tony contacts their former PA, Karen (Juliet Aubrey), now divorced with a teen daughter, Clare (Rachael Stirling), and the pair sets about rounding up the group. Guitarist-composer Les (Jimmy Nail, from TV’s “Spender”) is running a one-man roofing business up north; addled lead singer Ray (Bill Nighy) is living in an English country manse with his second wife, waspish Swede Astrid (Helena Bergstrom); corpulent drummer Beano (Timothy Spall) works in a flower nursery in permanent fear of the tax authorities. All are flat broke, with nothing more to lose.

Because the lead guitarist, Brian, is missing, reportedly dead from drugs, the Fruits hire a talented youngster, Luke (Hans Matheson), to replace him and provide a contempo edge. Karen manages to patch together a series of warm-up gigs in Belgium and Holland, and the Fruits set out in an evil-smelling tour bus , with Hughie at the helm, to recapture their old magic.

Guts of the picture is the band’s odyssey through a series of low-rent continental clubs, marked by embarrassing disasters, the resurgence of old friction between Les and Ray, a growing re-attraction between Tony and Karen, the pursuit of Beano by a mysterious lady in black (Frances Barber) and sack action between youngsters Luke and Clare that recalls the band’s good old days on the road.

Pic’s ambling style and humor, based more on observation than one-liners, takes a while to settle down but finds its focus with the second-reel appearance of Nighy, in an on-the-button portrait of a burned-out, middle-aged rocker whose brains are still fried by past excesses. The TV/legit actor’s perf anchors the movie, with the rest of the fine cast essentially playing straight to Nighy’s woozy, funny incarnation of the ’70s glam-rock scene. It’s the resolution of Ray’s demons that fuels the surprisingly moving finale.

At a trim 95 minutes, the film has no spare flesh, with signs of some ruthless editing compressing some of the characters’ stories. Nail’s character is slimly backgrounded, Rea’s at one point appears with an unexplained bloody nose, and around the hour mark the movie has some trouble smoothly knitting together the principals’ various conflicts, with the romance between Rea and Aubrey not given its due weight.

Still, there is a strength and naturalness to the ensemble playing that pays emotional dividends in the final reels, with a neat extended cameo by Bruce Robinson as Brian that provides a clever catalyst.

Production values are modest for this Sony negative pickup, with Ashley Rowe’s lensing varying between warm and grungily cold. Max Gottlieb’s production design and Caroline Harris’ costumes are spot-on, and the soundtrack highly accessible, with two standout numbers (“All Over the World,” “The Flame Still Burns”) punching up the movie. Brit accents are occasionally thick but generally comprehensible.

For the record, title recalls another, far more extroverted rock-music comedy , Allan Arkush’s 1983 “Get Crazy.”

Still Crazy

(COMEDY -- BRITISH)

Production

A Columbia TriStar Films (in U.K.)/Sony Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with the Greenlight Fund, of a Marmot Tandy Prods. production. Produced by Amanda Marmot. Executive producers, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais. Directed by Brian Gibson. Screenplay, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe London prints), Ashley Rowe; editor, Peter Boyle; additional editing, Niven Howie; music, Clive Langer; music supervisors, Tarquin Gotch, Steve Dagger; production designer, Max Gottlieb; art director, Sarah-Jane Cornish; costume designer, Caroline Harris; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), Colin Nicolson; line producer, Steve Clark-Hall; associate producers, Gotch, Dagger; assistant director, Simon Moseley; second unit director, Adrian Sibley; casting, Gail Stevens. Reviewed at Virgin Haymarket 1, London, Oct. 30, 1998. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Tony Costello ..... Stephen Rea Hughie ..... Billy Connolly Les Wickes ..... Jimmy Nail David (Beano) Baggot ..... Timothy Spall Ray Simms ..... Bill Nighy Karen Knowles ..... Juliet Aubrey Astrid Simms ..... Helena Bergstrom Brian Lovell ..... Bruce Robinson Luke Shand ..... Hans Matheson Clare Knowles ..... Rachael Stirling Neil Gaydon ..... Phil Daniels Lady in Black ..... Frances Barber Limo Driver ..... Phil Davis
With: Zoe Ball, Andy Nichol, Frances Magee, Justin Gratton, Delroy Atkinson, Julian Simms.

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