Mary McCormack, left, and Minnie driver

Zesty playing by leads Minnie Driver and Mary McCormack, as two femmes trying to fleece a bunch of hardened criminals, makes "High Heels and Low Lifes" an entertaining chick pic for all ages and sexes.

Zesty playing by leads Minnie Driver and Mary McCormack, as two femmes trying to fleece a bunch of hardened criminals, makes “High Heels and Low Lifes” an entertaining chick pic for all ages and sexes. In his fourth spell in the director’s chair, Brit comic Mel Smith recalls the subtle goofiness of his debut, “The Tall Guy,” more than the tailored style of “Bean,” especially in his skill at giving a dorky twist to everyday characters and drawing comic timing from a noncomedic cast. Pic has the potential to spike a warm cut of Blighty’s summer B.O. action but, with no bankable names, will need a heavy sell on its concept alone as a fun alternative to heavyweight Hollywood fare. Offshore, marketing will play a major role in the film’s fortunes.

Casting off her enameled, American makeover in recent pics like “Beautiful” and “Return to Me,” Driver reassumes a more natural look as Shannon, a nurse in a London hospital whose “sound scupltor” b.f., Ray (Darren Boyd), is more interested in his Urban Noise Symphony Installation than taking her out for her birthday. Molto peeved, Shannon goes and gets legless with a girlfriend, Frances (McCormack), a struggling American actress marking time in a pretentious off-off-off play.

Back at Shannon’s apartment, les grrrls accidentally overhear a cell phone conversation on Ray’s radio scanner and later realize it was between the robbers of a safe deposit box center who got away with £10 million. When the oafish police (Kevin Eldon, Mark Williams) show no interest in their info, Frances suggests she and Shannon “recycle” some of the loot by blackmailing the robbers. Shannon is leery at first but plays along.

The chemistry between the two actresses clicks into gear, along with the film itself, as Shannon tutors Frances in a Cockney accent and Brit slang prior to the actress calling the robbers on their cell phone. There’s something of helmer Smith’s own TV double act with Griff Rhys Jones in the comic timing between Driver and McCormack, as they improvise with a mixture of bluff and braggadocio, demanding a cool £300,000.

As the crooks, led by hard man Mason (Kevin McNally), also counter-scheme wildly, pic turns into an inventively plotted caper movie in which Shannon and Frances slowly learn the tricks of the trade through trial and error. Impressively, the comedy is always kept integrated into the narrative, with no time wasted on set pieces for their own sake: In an elaborate hand-over sequence from a moving train, for instance, the movie juggles laughs, a modicum of drama and suspense all at the same time.

Script by Kim Fuller — a TV comedy writer whose credits include Tracey Ullman’s U.S. shows and, uh, “Spice World: The Movie” (from the same producers) — is still turning the tables back and forth in the film’s pacey finale at Mason’s country manse.

In her best performance since “Grosse Pointe Blank,” Driver, under Smith’s relaxed but unindulgent direction, shows a real gift for nutty comedy as the no-nonsense practicality in her medic character is diverted from saving lives into scamming green. The onscreen chemistry between her and the little-known McCormack, as the more loose-cannon Frances, puts to shame the feeble role-playing between Rachel Weisz and Susan Lynch in the similarly themed female caper pic “Beautiful Creatures.”

Supporting characters are richly etched, with McNally especially good as Mason — a militaristic hard knuckle who machine-guns rabbits on his country estate for relaxation — and Michael Gambon contribbing a priceless cameo as an effete, aging Cockney villain. In one of several running jokes, Eldon hits just the right note of airy distraction as an investigating cop who’s more into real estate prices than nailing criminals.

Pacing is sprightly without seeming rushed, though there are occasional signs of missing background in the film’s tight, 85-minute edit. Jany Temime’s costume designs for the two leads are neatly contrasted without being overdone, though the sometimes unattractive color processing in the blowup from Super-16 doesn’t always showcase her work to best advantage.

High Heels and Low Lifes

U.K.-U.S.

Production

A Buena Vista Intl. (in U.K.)/Buena Vista (in U.S.) release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Fragile Films production. Produced by Uri Fruchtmann, Barnaby Thompson. Co-producer, Nicky Kentish Barnes. Directed by Mel Smith. Screenplay, Kim Fuller; story, Fuller, Georgia Pritchett; camera (Technicolor), Steven Chive.

Crew

Editor, Christopher Blunden; music, Charlie Mole; production designer, Michael Pickwoad; art director, Roger A. Bowles; costume designer, Jany Temime; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Colin Nicolson; second unit director, John Greaves; associate producer, Fuller; assistant director, Richard Hewitt; casting, Kate Rhodes James. Reviewed at Mr. Young's Preview Theater 1, London, July 2, 2001. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Shannon - Minnie Driver Frances - Mary McCormack Mason - Kevin McNally Tremaine - Mark Williams Danny - Danny Dyer McGill - Kevin Eldon Kerrigan - Michael Gambon Barry - Len Collin Ray - Darren Boyd Rogers - Julian Wadham

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