The good news is that Bill Forsyth, after a decade in the commercial outfield, hasn’t lost his early gift for observational, character-driven comedy. The not-so-good news is that, though “Gregory’s Two Girls” is no simple retread of his warmly remembered 1982 original, Forsyth still needs a strong guiding arm in the editing suite. At the least, though, the back-to-roots “Girls” re-establishes the Scottish helmer as a distinctive, still-functioning talent, following one mixed (“Housekeeping”) and two disastrous (“Breaking In,” “Being Human”) outings Stateside. Pic’s B.O. fortunes could be reasonable with inventive marketing and strong critical support.
Any fears that Forsyth, in an act of career desperation, has tried to replicate his much-loved low-budgeter about a gangly teen with the hots for a soccer-mad schoolgirl, are laid to rest early on. From the first frame of John de Borman’s polished, richly colored lensing, “Girls” has a very different feel and texture. Aside from the central figure, Gregory Underwood (John Gordon Sinclair, encoring), now an English teacher at the same Scottish school, and the slightly wacky, off-center humor, this is a movie of the late ’90s, made by a middle-aged writer-director who has mellowed in the intervening two decades without losing his quiet exasperation at the idiocies of contempo life.
A clever opening featuring Gregory and nubile, 16-year-old pupil Frances (striking blue-eyed newcomer Carly McKinnon) briefly establishes a tie with the original and then moves on. Now in his mid-30s, Gregory is an emotionally underdeveloped but otherwise passionate, committed teacher who, technically speaking, teaches English, but more often lectures his class on politics and the evils of (especially American) big business and politics.
Though fellow teacher Bel (Maria Doyle Kennedy) couldn’t make herself more available, Gregory has un-teacherly feelings for Frances, who keeps making eyes at him in class and suggesting a clandestine rendezvous. The sexual tension between the awkward, frustrated Gregory and confident, open Frances becomes a long-running joke, as well as establishing the tone of the script, which consistently sets up situations and characters and then pulls the rug on the audience’s expectations.
Frances wants Gregory to help her and fellow pupil Douglas (Hugh McCue) get the goods on corrupt businessman Fraser Rowan (Dougray Scott), a local boy who made his fortune in the States and now runs a tech company in Cumbernauld. The kids suspect Fraser is secretly making computers that cause mental damage to his Third World customers, and ask Gregory, who’s an old school chum of Fraser, to get them into his factory.
Milling around on the sidelines of the plot is an Asian human-rights activist (Martin Schwab) who’s tracking the same scam. While Gregory is drawn into the kids’ scheme, he continues to be tortured by his dangerous crush on Frances and the never-say-die advances of Bel.
Pic’s first act, which mostly revolves around the Gregory-Frances joke, is full of Forsyth’s patented brand of comedy, with rapidly sketched characters, a self-mocking take on Scottish manners and a mellow, slightly romantic humor nudged along by Michael Gibbs’ score. The plot and protagonists neatly intermingle in the second act, with Scott very good as the all-knowing, go-for-it businessman, surrounded by a bevy of sleek babes, and Fiona Bell and Kevin Anderson contributing a neat interlude as Gregory’s sister and her Yank fiance — the latter a typical Forsyth creation who starts out as an Ugly American but turns out to be nothing of the sort.
The problems start in the last act, when the movie needs to push on to its conclusion but too often becomes mired in extraneous sequences and loses both its emotional focus (Gregory and his two “girls”) and rhythm. More’s the pity, as there’s still plenty of good stuff here, and with 15 minutes taken from the running time, “Girls” would be a much sharper movie.
Sinclair, who’s filled out considerably from his gawky teen days but still has much of the same innocent charm, sets the comedic tone of the movie, cleverly balancing maturity with social ineptitude. It’s a carefully calibrated perf, no better shown than in a set piece likely to become known as the “badger” sequence. In the key role of Frances, McKinnon is a find, with lovely looks and personality but not over-glamorized in an obvious way.
Other roles are equally well cast, including the reliable Kennedy hitting a balance between hard and soft as Gregory’s elder “girl,” and John Murtagh funny as the bottom-line school principal. It’s a measure of Forsyth’s skill that even tiny roles, such as Jane Stabler’s rock-faced cop, make an impression.
Technically, pic is a smooth job, though post-synched dialogue is not always clear, which is a further impediment to the sometimes thick Scottish accents.