Actor/playwright Steven Berkoff’s film of his stage play “Decadence” is a ripe, belching, heaving, power-drill satire of 1980s Thatcherite Britain that’s as full of excesses as the passe targets it parodies. Essentially a two-hander, with Berkoff himself and Joan Collins in multiple roles, pic has some fine moments between the awful ones but finally sinks under the weight of its own ego. Brit legit bad-boy Berkoff looks set for a B.O. clunker here.
Berkoff and Collins play two couples at the extremities of the English social scale. Steve, who affects a nerdish upper-class accent, is having an affair with Mayfair socialite Helen; meanwhile, Steve’s nouveau riche wife, Sybil, who lives in the ‘burbs, is canoodling with working-class Les, a private investigator she’s hired to follow her philandering husband.
Story, such as it is, cross-cuts between the two pairs as the former romp in Helen’s ritzy apartment and various fashionable restaurants, while the latter plot between the sheets in Sybil’s tacky duplex how to get rid of their socially mobile nemeses.
It’s no surprise that the latter plot strand fizzles into nothingness, as it’s clear by about the second reel that the pic is essentially the biggest ego outing by a renaissance spirit since Anthony Newley’s 1969 extravaganza “Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?” (which also , coincidentally, lassoed Collins in a supporting role).
The sadness of “Decadence” is that when Berkoff slows down his motor, or hands over the screen to Collins, the qualities of the script take on an aspect of almost Shakespearean bawdy humor. (It’s written in generally discreet rhyming couplets and a mix of archaisms and modern four-letter words.) Though the targets of the play — first staged in the mid-1980s when Berkoff-mania was at its peak in Blighty — are long gone in the safe, recessionary 1990s, there’s often much to enjoy in Berkoff’s rotund dialogue and shapely writing.
Though Collins was a late choice for the femme role — after the pic’s backers nixed Berkoff’s stage partner, Linda Marlowe, and Miranda Richardson and Helen Mirren turned it down — she emerges with the greatest credit in a role perfectly suited to her talents, moving effortlessly between the high-glam, bored socialite queen and lower-middle-class slag. Her sexual monologues alone, especially one astride a kneeling Berkoff as they play rider and horse, are almost worth the price of admission.
Actor Berkoff’s over-the-top pastiching of Bob Hoskins in the Les role, and a Jack Hawkins-like character in the twit part, often does his script a disservice. In his first big-screen directing stint, he shows an OK command of the medium — notably in a semi-choreographed eatery scene, with “Hello, Dolly!”-like gliding waiters — that occasionally overreaches into obviousness.
Among several familiar British faces, Michael Winner cameos as a cigar-chomping true Brit in an embarrassing sequence set in a London gentleman’s club.
Camera work by Denis Lenoir is often unsubtly over-lit, and production design shows budget limitations. For a pic in which the words are everything, soundtrack could be much cleaner as Berkoff’s words are often obscured by distortion.