There are several potentially interesting pictures hiding away in the Brit character comedy “Lucky Break,” but none of them swims into view for very long. A jail escape comedy in which the inmates plan to bust out during their performance of an amateur musical, pic is chained to the floor by a script that isn’t particularly funny, direction that goes for realism rather than stylization and an almost complete lack of comic timing. This first feature by helmer Peter Cattaneo since his surprise success “The Full Monty” is getting a massive ad-pub push from distrib FilmFour in the U.K., where it goes out on some 300 prints Aug. 24 (following world preem screenings at the Edinburgh fest), but pic will need to make most of its bundle in the first week before word of mouth sets in. Stateside release through Paramount is set for fall.
As his TV work prior to “Monty” — and stretches also of that pic — showed, Cattaneo’s strength lies in small-screen realism. “Monty” worked thanks to a strong concept and technical tweaking; in the case of “Lucky Break,” Irish writer Ronan Bennett, whose background is in serious, often lugubrious drama, was simply the wrong man for the job.
The film can’t make up its mind whether it’s a cheeky-chappy comedy, caper movie, romantic drama or socially aware look at the prison system, and Cattaneo seems to have no personal take on the material either. What’s left is an occasionally amusing, small British character piece stuffed with familiar local faces that briefly catches fire now and then. It’s the weakest of the three Brit crime comedies that have opened during the summer (following “High Heels and Low Lifes” and “The Parole Officer”).
Pre-title sequence is snappily put together as smalltime crims Jimmy (James Nesbitt) and Rudy (Lennie James), after 15 years of bad luck, try to pull off a bank job. Jimmy leaves Rudy to take the rap but is also captured soon afterward. Pacing and tone soon start to hit the floor as Jimmy is transferred — five years into his 12-year term — to an austere lock-up, Long Rudford, ruled with a rod of iron by security chief Perry (Ron Cook). There, Jimmy meets Rudy, understandably still peeved, and shares a cell with Cliff (Timothy Spall), a tubby, put-upon depressive.
The prison governor, Mortimer (Christopher Plummer), is an aging, mustachioed eccentric with a passion for Broadway musicals and aspirations of being a composer. After noticing how close the prison’s Old Chapel is to the perimeter wall, Jimmy encourages Mortimer to let the prisoners mount his unproduced work, “Nelson: The Musical,” there, and concocts an elaborate escape plan round the performance.
Once rehearsals for the tuner begin — with uncanny parallels to “The Full Monty” — the movie starts to pick up comic steam, with Julian Barratt adding touches of dry humor as a deadly serious Cambridge U. grad brought in as producer. Anne Dudley’s cornpone music and Stephen Fry’s book and lyrics for “Nelson” are among the funniest things in the film.
Pic’s focus, however, keeps sliding away to other plot strands — Jimmy’s putative romance with prisoner support officer Annabel (Olivia Williams), and personal backgrounds of other inmates, like Cliff and the snooty Roger (Bill Nighy) — which rupture the tone and hardly help to build up any ongoing rhythm. The actual prison break, in which all the strands should come together, is more confused than comically suspenseful.
Given the movie’s stress on realism, the Jimmy-Annabel side-plot is especially unbelievable, though Williams gives her side of the equation her best shot. Nesbitt, best known for TV work like “Cold Feet” and “Ballykissangel,” lacks the necessary projection and charisma to make a bigscreen leading man, especially when surrounded by fine character actors like Nighy, Spall, James, Cook and — in a late-on addition as a hard bruiser — the splendid Frank Harper. Plummer has some isolated fun as the loony governor.
Pic’s cold look, all blues and grays, by d.p. Alwin Kuchler doesn’t help to build much emotional warmth, and at 107 minutes the movie could safely lose a reel from its first hour. An end-titles sequence amusingly sketches what happened to the characters and includes a strangely moving epitaph to Spall’s character. For the rest, “Lucky Break” only works in fits and starts.