There is nothing like a dame, and at the grand age of 83, Dame Joan Collins is still nothing like one — not by the Queen’s definition of the term, at least. Yet with the British honours system having finally smiled on her, the erstwhile star of disco-era smutfests “The Bitch” and “The Stud” has belatedly decided to emulate Dame Judi, Dame Maggie and the “Best Exotic” club with a respectably genteel geriatric comedy of her own. Enter “The Time of Their Lives,” a likably lame rattletrap of a road movie that gets what limited spark it has from the “Dynasty” diva’s still-lascivious on-screen charisma.
As a pair of lonely pensioners thrown together by chance on an episodic Gallic escapade, the strutting star is agreeably paired up with long-neglected namesake Pauline Collins; Roger Goldby’s narratively lumpy film shamelessly cribs from the latter’s Oscar-nominated breakout “Shirley Valentine” in espousing the life-enhancing virtues of a little sun, a little wine and a little swarthy Continental sex, but remains, from the script down, a strictly economy-class affair. The power of the so-called “grey pound” has made unlikely domestic hits of several similarly unfashionable vehicles for senior British thesps, but it’s hard to see the optimistically titled “The Time of Their Lives” following suit — not least when its chief drawcard hasn’t had a recognizable big-screen outing since 2000’s “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.”
Goldby’s film does, however, prove that both Collinses should have been better used over the years, even as it slightly misuses them itself. Joan, in particular, deploys some peppery comic timing and a salty sense of self-parody to season the otherwise vague character of Helen Shelley, a Sixties screen siren whose former days of debauchery have left her penniless, family-free and in a state care home. When she learns that the successful director of her biggest hit has died, she resolves to get to Ile de Ré for the funeral by hook or (mostly) by crook, desperate to regain the industry contacts that could revive her career. “It’ll be like the Academy Awards,” she reasons. “A bit sadder, but not much.”
Playing attentively to type as Priscilla, a downtrodden middle-England housewife, Pauline Collins gets the more cohesive backstory of the two — the already obvious details of which are teased out through needless narrative contrivance. Stranded for decades in a through-the-motions marriage to a loveless old stiff (Ronald Pickup) who continually blames her for the death of their young son, she’s understandably loath to amend the error when an implausible misunderstanding places her on a beach-bound tour bus with Helen and her fellow institutional inmates. That she’s swiftly befriended and wheedled by Helen into joining her on a law-breaking cross-Channel jaunt is a greater stretch still; Goldby’s nominally original screenplay demands great bounding leaps of credulity from its audience, even as its own rate of movement rarely exceeds a lumbago-slowed shuffle.
Once in France, the film finds moderately surer footing, with dewily lit coastal scenery at least providing a salubrious backdrop to the stars’ repetitive squabbling and low-energy banter. (James Aspinall’s artificially sunny lensing is bright enough to render the hyper-perky machinations of Stephen Warbeck’s score overkill — though a cheery, film-within-a-film theme song, written by executive producer Tim Rice, is a cute detail.) As a wealthy, ponytailed Italian artist who rescues the women when their car and screenplay alike run out of gas, Franco Nero shows up mostly to let the hemmed-in Pauline Collins replay her “Shirley Valentine” blossoming, though his most vivid contribution to proceedings is the year’s most unexpected full-frontal shot — you won’t find that in “The Lady in the Van,” folks.
With due respect to Nero’s manhood, however, Joan Collins remains the film’s most sizable asset, whether flicking off insults and sucking on cigarettes with imperious, eye-rolling hauteur, or bringing a shoulder-padded soap star’s quivering conviction to some late-in-the-game funereal melodrama. Her dramatic gifts and flair for diva-tude converge most effectively in an out-of-nowhere musical number that sees her touchingly croon a Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley standard from her own salad days. “Who can I turn to when nobody needs me?” she sings — though one suspects the dame can sustain herself rather better than this sweet, rickety film.