An aging Scottish rocker finds he has a 16-year-old Welsh daughter in “I’ll Be There,” an extremely thin slice of feel-good comedy that marks Glasgow-born comic Craig Ferguson’s first stint in the helming chair, as well as doubling as star (and co-writer). Less extroverted than in both “The Big Tease” and “Saving Grace,” Ferguson just about saves the whole souffle from collapsing under its own flimsiness. However, the leisurely paced, rather gentle pic — which also gives Welsh classical teen-star Charlotte Church her first movie role — lacks a strong enough personality to make much B.O. impression. Following its preem in Blighty June 20, the Morgan Creek production gets a limited Stateside release through WB in August.
Pic’s twin marketing poles are set up from the start with cross-cuts between Church singing an angelic Celtic song in church, and Ferguson briefly doing some crazed shtick by getting blotto in his underpants and racing round his baronial manse on a motorbike. He plays Paul Kerr, a former U.K. rock star who wowed auds almost two decades ago; she plays Olivia, the daughter of a Cardiff hairdresser, who’s been clandestinely taking singing lessons behind mom’s back.
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Film takes three reels to set up the plot nut that’ll be clear to auds when they buy their tickets. Meanwhile, the main characters are slowly sketched in: Olivia’s mom, Rebecca (Jemma Redgrave); Rebecca’s aging rockabilly father, Evil Edmonds (Joss Ackland); Digger McQuade (Ralph Brown), Paul’s former drummer; and Sam Gervasi (Anthony Head), Paul’s slimy onetime manager.
Evil suddenly reappears in Rebecca’s life when he hears Paul is in hospital after crashing his motorbike through an upstairs window. Though she’s done her best to protect her daughter from the whole rock-music world, Rebecca decides it’s finally time to tell Olivia she was conceived during a brief fling with Paul at the height of his fame (shown in grainy B&W with flecks of color). All that remains is to break the news to Paul himself, who’s been blissfully unaware he sired a child all those years ago.
Back at his country manse, where he keeps a llama in the garden, Paul is then descended upon by Digger, who’s also heard about the accident and is determined to wean Paul off the sauce. Against her mom’s wishes, Olivia also starts coming by Paul’s place to get to know him. When she just happens to find a new song he’s written lying around in his recording studio, the die seems cast for daughter to follow dad into the music biz.
There’s little forward momentum to the story, which keeps restating the obvious conflicts. There’s passing fun in seeing an esteemed veteran like Ackland play a long-haired, 70-year-old rockabilly, but most of the other roles, like Redgrave’s uptight Rebecca and Brown’s sanctimonious New Age Aussie, hang in a strange dramatic limbo. Church sings a few songs beautifully but doesn’t instill any life into the underwritten part of the daughter.
Thankfully, Ferguson has cast himself in the lead role, and it’s his small comic asides and verbal dexterity that largely prevent the laid-back pic from falling asleep on its feet. With his well-worked, expressive face, and genial sense of idiocy, thesp just about keeps things ticking until the manufactured finale in London. As the two-faced manager, Head also has some mild fun with the music-biz scene.
As a director, Ferguson shows no special signature, but he’s helped to a large extent by d.p. Ian Wilson’s excellent lensing, which is clean and well-textured. Running time could easily take 10 minutes of trims.
For the record, though set in southern Wales, whole film was shot around Slough, near London.