Bright and sassy, “The Full Monty” is a treat. Backed by inventive marketing, this small but muscular British pic about a bunch of gawky unemployeds launching a striptease act could turn into a winner for Fox Searchlight in the right locations, and looks set for solid business in other territories. Apart from Robert Carlyle (Begbie in “Trainspotting”), it’s a no-name cast, so word of mouth and the off-the-wall concept will play a large role in selling the movie.
The sardonic tone is set from the start as an upbeat promo docu introduces “Sheffield — City on the Move” underneath the main titles. Twenty-five years later we see the South Yorkshire industrial town’s contempo reality, with modernization having led to steel mills being closed and workers laid off.. Among them is easygoing divorcee Gaz (Carlyle) and his bumbling, overweight pal Dave (Mark Addy).
Gaz spends his days larking around town with his young son (William Snape) and Dave, occasionally popping into the local job center that’s also frequented by their snooty ex-foreman, Gerald (Tom Wilkinson). All three men’s personal lives are a mess: Gaz gets a hard time from his ex-wife (Emily Woof), Dave is underperforming in the sack with his spouse (Lesley Sharp), and Gerald is still fooling his other half (Deirdre Costello) that he goes to the office every day.
Inspired by a visit of the Chippendale dancers to a local club, and in need of some quick cash to pay off his alimony arrears, Gaz has the idea of the three of them doing a strip act to raise some coin. With amateur ballroom dancer Gerald taking charge of the choreography, they’re joined by Guy (Hugo Speer), whose largest qualification is between his legs, suicidal Lomper (Steve Huison) and Horse (Paul Barber), a middle-aged dancer with a hopelessly out-of-date repertoire.
After being arrested by the cops during one of their rehearsals, word quickly spreads through town about their forthcoming stunt, and tickets are snapped up by curious women. Though increasingly nervous, the men realize they can’t back out but agree to do it for one night only. In the meantime, however, Gaz has unfortunately announced, as a publicity move, that they’ll do “the full monty” (a complete strip).
The particular magic of the film is the way in which it draws credible characters in a recognizable setting but elevates them and their story into crowd-pleasing fare without losing sight of the big social picture. Helmer Peter Cattaneo, who had a mini-hit at the 1995 Edinburgh fest with his BBC telepic “Loved Up,” brings many of the same qualities to “Monty” — a nonjudgmental approach to flawed types and a feel for entertainment values and community spirit.
Just as “Loved Up” was very London in its characters, so “Monty” works best in the northern setting, with its rough humor, forthright womenfolk and feet-on-the-ground attitudes. Yorkshire-born scripter Simon Beaufoy’s dialogue catches the feel of the place without going ear-bendingly local. Only in occasional spots may North American auds have problems with the accents.
Filmmakers are served by a top-notch cast seemingly chosen for veracity rather than marquee values. Yet again, the chameleon Carlyle surprises in a role far removed from Begbie in “Trainspotting,” the MS victim in “Go Now” or the Glasgow bus driver in “Carla’s Song.” Lean and louche, but with an unbreakable spirit, Carlyle’s Gaz is the motor of the movie, and the last few minutes of the film, as he leads the lads in a full monty in front of cheering women, are the stuff of standing ovations.
The other male leads score in different ways, with Addy’s porcine Dave playing straight man to the flashier Carlyle, and Wilkinson, as middle-class interloper Gerald, contributing at least one touching scene when he drops his snooty bearing and fesses up to his weaknesses.
Though never really part of the main action, the women are all well-drawn, tough Yorkshire types, led by Sharp as Dave’s patient wife. Also good is kid thesp Snape as Gaz’s unfazable son: He and Carlyle play especially well together.
Technically, the movie has a modest but pro look, with Anne Dudley’s music giving it plenty of bounce and the cutting trim at only an hour and a half. It’s one of those rare pics, however, where the bigness and generosity of the characters make the smallness of the budget unimportant.