“Piccadilly Jim” is a dizzy drawing room comedy with as many madcap entrances and exits as a French bedroom farce. Costumed and festooned to a faretheewell, pic lavishes more attention on its eclectic mix of decor than its uneven ensemble of actors. High-flying repartee — veering precariously from Hollywood screwball to Wildean wit to contemporary ‘tude — is hustled along at breakneck speed to eventual wearying effect. Novelty costumer could find groove on cable, though.
Pic opens brilliantly amidst the aftershock of one of Piccadilly Jim’s infamous birthday parties — this one to celebrate a chicken’s nativity. Camera pulls back to reveal a palatial English mansion and pan over the estate. Given 15 minutes to clear away the telltale evidence of Jim’s debauchery (it seems he didn’t dream the cow in the bedroom), the domestic staff shifts into high gear. When the honored guests sweep in, all seems calm, but servants are hidden in every corner of the frame, several stuffed in the piano.
Unfortunately, such careful, well-executed gag setups all-too-quickly give way to plot-heavy confrontations as characters, embroiled in a complicated web of assumed identities, improvise wildly to stave off disaster.
Sam Rockwell’s titular American character, a funky post-modern take on an Errol Flynn playboy, comes closest to embodying pic’s time-hopping elements. He is ably abetted by Tom Wilkinson as Jim’s like-minded British father.
Distaff thesping fares less swimmingly, however. Though Allison Janney injects popeyed humor into her character’s regal self-satisfaction, Brenda Blethyn infuses not an ounce of fun into her matronly monument to spite and envy.
But the true fly in the ointment is Frances O’Connor’s smart-mouth American babe. O’Connor, whose confident, flirty stride can light up the landscape, is fine until she opens her mouth. Written as a cross between Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard, O’Connor chews up her character’s lines with the finesse of a runaway train.
Rockwell, who elsewhere does his best to vary pic’s pace and insert much-needed beats into his gags, is reduced, in frequent love scenes with O’Connor, to racing to get a word in edgewise.
Production designer Amanda McArthur’s and costume designer Ralph Hole’s innovative meld of ’30s, ’50s and ’70s styles gives pic a jazzy freewheeling feel, further enhanced by Adrian Johnston’s era-sampling score. But in his haste to liberate his period reconstruction from any “Masterpiece Theatre”-type historical handcuffs, helmer John McKay also frees it from the discipline of pinpoint comic timing and the exercise of spirited, lively exchange.