There’s a pointed takedown of very-online living fighting to emerge from the many zany, bloody distractions of “Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break,” though even if it succeeded, it probably wouldn’t be all that fresh. Wringing bleak comedy from the psychological collapse of a naive middle-aged man chasing talent-show glory, this uneven sophomore feature from director Nick Gillespie most resembles a grindhouse marriage of “Joker” and “Ingrid Goes West,” with its makeup left to run in a gray British drizzle. The celebrity-forging cycle of reality TV and the false validation of social media likes aren’t exactly hard targets, so Gillespie’s film can’t help but hit them squarely here and there. Yet it’s hard to escape the queasy sense that such points are also being scored at the expense of a vulnerable protagonist’s mental frailty, at which stage the laughs rather dry up.
A performance of frenzied commitment by Tom Meeten in the title role, at least, lends interest to “Paul Dood’s” ickiness. It’s pleasing to see this strange, striking actor — eerily brilliant in Gareth Tunley’s BAFTA-nominated but little-seen thriller “The Ghoul” — get this kind of front-and-center showcase, even if, beyond its premiere in SXSW’s Narrative Spotlight program, it’s hard to imagine what kind of audience awaits it. On home turf, a supporting ensemble peppered with shticky cameos from British comic fixtures including Kris Marshall and Johnny Vegas may be an additional selling point. Still, they’re all in a markedly different film from Meeten’s distinctive lead turn: a figure of flailing despair in a brightly sequined catsuit.
Home-sewn by his doting nonagenarian mother Julie (June Watson), that spangled getup is what 40-something charity store clerk Paul Dood wears to escape his significantly less glittery reality: a quiet, friendless life in a provincial English town, in which he’s consistently bullied by strangers and co-workers alike. He fancies himself a song-and-dance man, though his dreams unsurprisingly dwarf any talent evident in his act, a 1980s synthpop karaoke routine with delusions of Bowie-esque grandeur. That his fanbase is an elite club of two — Julie and Clemmie (Katherine Parkinson, egregiously underused), a meek cleaner at the mall where he works — doesn’t deter Paul from livestreaming practically his every waking moment on the TikTok-like app “Trend Ladder,” where any stray like or comment is received all too hungrily.
That the app is also staging a countrywide in-person talent show along “X Factor” lines — presided over by vapid insta-celebrity Jack Tapp (Kevin Bishop) — does make one wonder how long the film’s screenplay has been in development. Some pop culture allusions here feel as dated as Paul’s own music collection; other digital reference points are aptly, if hazardously, of the moment. Either way, performing for Tapp becomes Paul’s obsessive ambition. On the day of the local auditions, with the ailing Julie in tow, he races to the theater against time and assorted human obstacles: an ornery station manager (Steve Oram) who makes them miss their train, a conceited Catholic priest (Marshall) who poaches their taxi, and so on. The audition, in any number of excruciating ways, is a bust; rather than packing it in, however, Paul embarks on a very public trail of revenge.
It’s here that “Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break,” already light on tonal consistency, pivots to a japey mode of farcical horror that Gillespie’s direction isn’t sufficiently brash or rhythmic to pull off. One of Ben Wheatley’s regular collaborators, he takes clear inspiration from the auteur’s morbid, genre-mashing impulses, but without Wheatley’s flair for Grand-Guignol excess. If Meeten’s sheer, eccentric intensity carries the film through its vaguer patches, it’s not enough to make Paul himself, as written, either a plausibly tragic figure or a compelling burlesque of everyman clout-chasing — in part because the script can’t resist poking fun at his more pathetic qualities while inviting us to share his rage.
The film’s satirical objectives, meanwhile, wander even further off-piste, taking in church corruption, cultural appropriation debates, police inefficiency and public bloodthirst along the way. Wide-eyed onlookers begin to cheer Paul on by the wildly contrived climax, though the film’s own audience may be too bemused by then to join in. When in doubt, it seems, there’s no crisis that an amateur but impassioned rendition of Giorgio Moroder’s “Together in Electric Dreams” can’t defuse: Any real-world resonance intended by Gillespie’s film is long out the window by this point, but it never gives up on its faintly mournful weirdness.