Anyone anticipating something similarly edgy from the directing bow of the actor still best known for his savage turn in Mike Leigh’s “Naked” will be sorely taken aback by David Thewlis’ “Cheeky.” Sappy, sentimental and lacking bite even in its satire of something as lampoonable as television gameshows, this toothless comedy-drama about a bereaved father and son’s difficult path toward reconciliation is laced with self-consciously cute eccentricity, but at heart is utterly vanilla tube fodder.
The world of toyshop owner Harry (Thewlis) comes crashing down when his beloved wife Nancy (Lisa Gorman) dies in an electrical fire. Their adolescent son Sam (Sean Ward) is consumed by guilt, having been immersed in his porn mag collection upstairs, oblivious to the flames gutting the house. When a letter arrives indicating that, prior to her death, Nancy had signed up her husband to participate in a TV gameshow called “Cheeky,” Harry’s nurturing relatives (Lesley Sharp, Ian Hart) persuade him to honor his wife’s unusual final wish.
Harry’s decision to participate in the inane show — a clumsily sketched hybrid of general knowledge questions and contestant abuse — drives a deeper wedge between him and Sam. The presence of a brazen rival contestant also named Nancy (producer Trudie Styler), who attempts to draw Harry out of his shell and ultimately, to romance him, creates further pain and confusion.
There’s barely a single smart decision in Thewlis’ messy script, which ladles out emotional cliches that frequently ring false, lurching from one situation to the next with nothing resembling a fluid dramatic arc. And despite Dario Marianelli’s bouncy, caperish score, the film has no rhythm.
Perhaps the most disappointing factor is Thewlis’ slim skill in working with the actors. The director’s own performance has some touching moments, and Sharp and Hart are amusing in turns writ large with Northern English regional flavor. But the key roles of Sam and TV contestant Nancy are woefully misjudged: Ward is too stiff to invite sympathy, while Styler plays her character as such a vulgar, intrusive fishwife that her softening in the concluding scenes seems an unlikely conceit.