A half-klutzy, half-engaging eccentric comedy set in the Welsh valleys, “Very Annie-Mary” is very Sara Sugarman. Bolstered by good turns from leads Rachel Griffiths and Jonathan Pryce, as a young Welsh woman with two left feet and her opera-singing baker father, respectively, pic is a considerable advance on the actress-turned-director’s clumsy first feature, “Mad Cows,” while again falling prey to a general disorganization in tone and structure. An energetic sell by distrib FilmFour could result in modest B.O. in Blighty, and foreign markets may be attracted by the colorful, Ealing-esque flavor of the whole enterprise.
Shot in summer 1999, the film was first announced for Sundance 2000 and then last fall’s Dinard Festival of British Cinema, but failed to show at both events. Final result is skedded for U.K. release June 8.
Film opens with Jack Pugh (Pryce) motoring through the countryside in his baker’s van while miming to a recording of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” in a Pavarotti mask. (Pic’s original title was “Pavarotti in Dad’s Room.”) A womanizing widower, Jack prides himself as “the voice of the valleys” and completely dominates his gauche, awkward daughter Annie-Mary (Griffiths).
Despite being in her early 30s, Annie-Mary still has the emotional make-up of a teenager, clandestinely smoking in her room and then curling up like a dog on dad’s feet when he says he’s feeling cold in bed. Her romance with a local lad Colin (Rhys Miles Thomas) has hardly progressed beyond first base: He even turns her down when she offers to pay him to sleep with her.
In her own clumsy way, Annie-Mary plans to buy a house of her own to escape her father’s domination, and starts saving for the £120 ($173) deposit. When dad suddenly has a stroke and becomes a basket case in a wheelchair, she takes over the running of the bakery and — in some of the movie’s funniest scenes — paints the premises mauve, re-christens the business Bread City, and stumbles from one bread-making disaster to another.
It’s to Pryce’s credit that, consigned to the role of a helpless mute halfway through the movie, he still manages to stay abreast of Griffiths in these comic sequences.
Having moved from picaresque character comedy to physical farce, the film switches tone yet again for the final act, in which Annie-Mary gets together an all-girl pop group to compete in a talent contest in Cardiff to win prize money to send her best friend, bedridden teen Bethan (Joanna Page), to Disneyland.
Less so than in “Mad Cows,” but still noticeably, Sugarman allows her actors plenty of freedom, often at the expense of structure. The movie veers wildly from big, actorly set-pieces, through quieter heartfelt moments (especially between Annie-Mary and Bethan), to occasional pratfall comedy. By the end, it has metamorphosed into a de facto love story between two women, with Annie-Mary singing Puccini outside the dying Bethan’s window.
In its use of music and vocals, Sugarman’s pic often evokes Peter Chelsom’s “Hear My Song” (1991), without achieving the lyrical sweep that lifted that picture beyond the purely whimsical. Sugarman’s heart is clearly more in outsized character comedy and, though she has no problems satirizing her fellow Welsh in the broadest strokes, she’s not yet capable of organizing her material into more than a collection of individual moments.
Still, many of those moments are undeniably entertaining, and both Griffiths (who adopts a very passable Welsh accent) and Pryce (who’s proved in stage musicals that he has a fine singing voice) flower in the freedom allowed them. Smaller roles are all well cast, with amusing turns by Ioan Gruffudd and Matthew Rhys as a couple of Broadway-mad gays, and Ruth Madoc as a horny local with eyes for the lustful Jack.
The slightly camp feel is heightened by the bold colors in the production design. Other technical credits are also flavorsome, from Caroline Harris’ costumes to Barry Ackroyd’s bright lensing in and around Pontycymer, south Wales, which doubles for the fictional Ogw (pronounced “Ogoo”). For the record, Sugarman shot both her early shorts, “Up the Valley” and “Valley Girls,” in the same location.