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Elephant Juice

"Elephant Juice" is as phony as a three-dollar bill -- and about as worthless. A London-set relationships ensembler that desperately wants to be hip and penetrating at the same time, this first feature from Miramax's U.K.-based production stable HAL Films is a totally uninvolving construct that submerges its few good performances in a sea of banality.

With:
Jules - Emmanuelle Beart Billy - Sean Gallagher Will - Daniel Lapaine Daphne - Daniela Nardini Frank - Mark Strong Dodie - Kimberly Williams Graham - Lennie James George - Lee Williams With: Kate Gartside, Rebecca Palmer, James Thornton, Sabra Williams.

“Elephant Juice” is as phony as a three-dollar bill — and about as worthless. A London-set relationships ensembler that desperately wants to be hip and penetrating at the same time, this first feature from Miramax’s U.K.-based production stable HAL Films is a totally uninvolving construct that submerges its few good performances in a sea of banality. Even Miramax’s formidable marketing skills would appear unable to rescue this one, which was generally reckoned among the weakest titles in the Edinburgh fest’s British Cinema section.

Script is from the pen of Brit writer Amy Jenkins, 31, who hit the media pages in Blighty with her 1996 cult BBC drama series “This Life,” itself heavily influenced by Steven Bochco’s productions. Director is Sam Miller, original director of “This Life” and subsequently of the feature misfire “Among Giants.” There’s a lot of the flavor of “This Life” in “Elephant Juice,” with its look at “modern relationships” among professionals; but where the first series worked as a cult hit, with the small screen lending it an intimacy and realism, “Elephant Juice,” with its widescreen lensing and pop soundtrack, simply feels posed and shallow.

Pic starts with seven of the eight principals gathering for a dinner party to celebrate the decision of Jules (Emmanuelle Beart) and Will (Daniel Lapaine) to tie the knot. As the conversation becomes, well, professional dinner partyish, the movie cuts away into a series of extended flashbacks and flash-forwards (the chronology is vague) during which we learn about the characters and, more precisely, who’s been canoodling with whom.

What several of them do for a living is unclear, but Jules is a smartly dressed business type with a soft heart who’s genuinely in love with Will, a born philanderer who has a regular hooker on the side. Will’s best friend, Billy (Sean Gallagher), a research scientist, is a shy type who has problems scoring with women, but finally links up with American coffee-shop owner Dodie (Kimberly Williams), who claims to be into tantric sex and is a divorced mother with a young baby.

Frank (Mark Strong), a balding psychotherapist, fancies Daphne (Daniela Nardini, from “That’s Life”), who gives him a hard time on the way to the bedroom. And — in the movie’s most token strand — lawyer Graham (Lennie James) and model George (Lee Williams) are a gay couple whose relationship falls foul of George’s success.

Heart of the film lies in the emotional travails of Billy and Jules, the first falling head over heels for the cute but tough Dodie, and the second permanently betrayed by the hormonal Will. Gallagher is good as Billy, the only real human being in the gallery of cut-outs, and Kimberly Williams (before peremptorily disappearing once she’s served as a plot device and token Yank) is both sharp and touching. Beart, who’s OK with her limited English dialogue, is functional, and Lapaine ditto as the thinly drawn Will.

Phoniest of all the relationships is the Frank-Daphne one, and both Strong and Nardini fail to animate Jenkins’ faux-hip dialogue. When, some 50 minutes into all the talk about sex, fidelity and so on, Jenkins and Miller turn serious and expect the viewer to feel for these people, “Elephant Juice” turns really tacky.

Miller directs as if he’s seen too many relationship movies set in Manhattan, and the pic, which shows signs of cutting at a late stage, is plastered with upbeat songs and funky music. Adrian Wild’s widescreen lensing is pro. Per final scene, film’s title is a way of saying “I love you.”

Elephant Juice

Production: A Miramax release presented in association with FilmFour of a HAL Films production. Produced by Sheila Fraser Milne. Executive producers, David Aukin, Trea Hoving, Clin Leventhal. Co-producers, Amy Jenkins, Sam Miller. Directed by Sam Miller. Screenplay, Amy Jenkins, based on an idea by Jenkins and Miller.

With: Jules - Emmanuelle Beart Billy - Sean Gallagher Will - Daniel Lapaine Daphne - Daniela Nardini Frank - Mark Strong Dodie - Kimberly Williams Graham - Lennie James George - Lee Williams With: Kate Gartside, Rebecca Palmer, James Thornton, Sabra Williams.Camera (Technicolor prints, Panavision widescreen), Adrian Wild; editor, Elen Pierce Lewis; music, Tim Atack; music supervisor, Bob Last; production designer, Grant Hicks; art director, Teresa Weston; costumes, Jill Taylor; sound (Dolby), Peter Baldock; assistant director, Richard Whelan; associate producer, Allon Reich; casting, Di Carling. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Focus on British Cinema), Aug. 23, 1999. Running time: 86 MIN.

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