Cranked up in high “AbFab” style, Joanna Lumley walks off with the few honors available in “Mad Cows,” an occasionally entertaining but hopelessly jumbled attempt to translate Aussie-born Kathy Lette’s absurdist novel about single motherhood to the bigscreen. Short runs in undiscerning ranches, followed by a rapid trip to video pastures looks the best bet for this bovine comedy, whose caricatured portrait of Brits may go down better in Lette’s native land than in the U.K., where it was roundly rapped by critics.
Topliner Anna Friel, an actress ever in need of a strong helmer, is dull as Maddy, a young Aussie living in London who’s arrested for shoplifting, dumped by the upper-crust Alex (Greg Wise) who is father of her young baby, and is sent to jail. A daytime TV star flirting with a career in politics, Alex is eager to appear as Mr. Clean and marry into the gentry.
Help for Maddy comes in the form of Gillian (Lumley), a penniless aristocrat on the run for credit card fraud who agrees to mind her kid while she breaks out of jail and gets even with Alex. The problem is that, while in jail, Maddy unwittingly signed papers allowing her baby to be adopted by a childless couple of crazies. And when out of jail, she falls for handsome Lothario Alex all over again.
Lette’s one-liner strewn dialogue, effective on the printed page, needs more stylish handling and directorial framing than it receives from Sara Sugarman, a former actress and shorts helmer making her feature film debut. Lumley simply switches into her “Absolutely Fabulous” mode and gets away with it; others, like Anna Massey as the jail shrink and Nicholas Woodeson as a gross cop, mug ridiculously.
Friel, though sporting a spot-on Aussie accent, shows no real gift for verbal or physical comedy, and pic loses impetus when she’s onscreen. Whenever Lumley takes over, however, “Mad Cows” briefly hits its stride as the aging but purposeful Gillian cons her way into an expensive hotel, makes a half-hearted attempt to get a job (“Something from 12 to 1, with an hour off for lunch”), and eventually finds herself discovering maternal instincts for Maddy’s kid. The classy thesp even manages to bring off a grubbily shot sex scene with panache (“No fellatio. It clogs my sinuses”).
Apart from Phyllida Law as Alex’s snooty mom, Lumley is the only player not left stranded by Sugarman’s direction, which thrashes around between “Carry On”-like comedy, exaggerated Brit stereotypes and technical trickery (speeded-up action, romantic slow motion, etc.).
Even the look of the film is all over the place, varying from bright poster colors to everyday realism, with Pierre Aim’s lensing at times slick and colorful, at times amateurishly lit like a ’70s British low-budgeter. Mark Thomas’ original score overdoses on the romantic side while a selection of 27 pop numbers wallpapers the rest of the pic.
A host of local media personalities, including Harrod’s owner Mohamed Al Fayed, cameo briefly, though their appearances will be lost on offshore auds. Lette herself pops up in a baby shop sequence.