Sheffield swings to the sound of disco in “Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?,” a well-cast Brit comedy set in “the year of the ‘Fever.’ ” Pic’s busy direction and bright performances partly compensate for a script that goes in too many directions at the same time. Smart, upbeat marketing and fast playoff could turn this into a moderate earner locally and a cult attraction offshore. Pic world preemed Nov. 13 in the London fest’s British Cinema Centrepiece slot, and is set to go out in Blighty in February through UIP, and in the U.S. next spring via USA Films.
The “Fever” is “Saturday Night Fever,” the year is 1977, and the setting is the South Yorkshire town that 20 years later will provide the backdrop for “The Full Monty.” Vince Smith (Michael Legge) is a boyish-looking teenager who practices Travolta moves in his bedroom and lusts after pretty Joanna Robinson (Laura Fraser), who works for the same law firm, over which tyrannical oaf Nesbit (David Thewlis) presides.
Vince shares a poky working-class house with elder brother Ray (Matthew Rhys), an aspiring magician; his genial, easygoing dad, Harold (Tom Courtenay); and perky mom (Lulu), whose taste for nightlife and younger meat is tolerated by Harold.
Joanna’s ambit is middle class: Dad (Stephen Fry) is a university lecturer who treats his family like students; mum (Amanda Root), a compliant nonentity; and younger sister Lucy (Charlotte Roberts), a prissy little do-gooder.
During some Christmas party games, Vince’s dad surprises everyone with a mind-reading act and later makes headlines by accidentally causing some wrinklies’ pacemakers to stop when he does an impromptu magic performance at an old folks’ home. It turns out that he really does have kinetic brain powers; soon he’s arrested by the police and has Vince’s boss as his defense counsel.
Joanna, meanwhile, is still waiting for Vince, who suffers from a severe lack of self-assertion, to pluck up his courage and ask her out on a proper date. One night in the street, however, he catches sight of a wild punkette who’s going around with a rocker (Charlie Hunnam); enraptured, Vince changes his Travolta duds for a more Sex Pistols look and tries to approach her, unaware that it’s actually Joanna in another guise.
There are enough separate plotlines in “Harold Smith” for at least two movies — a “Saturday Night Fever” coming-of-age riff and a satirical comedy on Harold’s supernatural abilities — and the script never makes a convincing connection between them. Instead, it starts out as the former, like a Brit version of Singaporean riff “Forever Fever” (“That’s the Way I Like It” in the U.S.), with interesting side characters like Vince’s doofus pal Walter (James Corden) and brother Ray; then it starts crisscrossing between Harold’s story and the Vince-Joanna romance. Neither thread is developed to its full potential.
After a lively and likable start, pic begins treading water in the second act and has to rally itself for two separate finales in the third act to resolve all the storylines. Though they contribute some of the funniest material, the presence of three considerable screen personalities — Courtenay, Fry and Thewlis — also makes the picture top heavy, stealing the acting thunder from younger thesps Legge, who evinces a natural charm, and the excellent Fraser, one of the brightest young Brit talents around (here, as in “Virtual Sexuality,” seamlessly suppressing her Scottish accent).
Fry’s comic creation of Joanna’s pompous dad is one of the highlights of the movie, with one sequence — giving daughter Lucy some sex education — a hilarious roof-raiser. Thewlis, outfitted with a shaggy ’70s hairpiece, is also very good as Vince’s stuck-up boss. In a less showy role, the relaxed Courtenay brings a warmer tone to the pic as a simple, working-class Yorkshire man possessed of amazing powers.
English helmer Pete Hewitt (“Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey”) puts together a very pro package on the technical side, backed by Gemma Jackson’s fun, poster-color production design and Marie France’s authentic-looking ’70s costumes. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ smooth, wall-to-wall score, and a host of period pop tunes, keeps things moving but, as in Hewitt’s previous pic, “The Borrowers,” one is left with a feeling that less would have been considerably more.