(On TV, July 2016) Curiously enough, I’d never seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, even despite being familiar with the stream of romantic comedies inspired by its success. Going back to the roots of the subgenre shows a film with the quirks and strengths of a relatively original script trying something its own way … rather than copying what’s been done before. Richard Curtis’s script is loosely structured around, yes, four weddings and a funeral (not in this order), this romantic comedy follows a foppish man (Hugh Grant, in a persona-defining performance) falling for a mysterious woman over a few key events. There’s a refreshing chaos to the amount and nature of the exposition required to set up a film with a core of friends and their acquaintances, and Four Weddings and a Funeral is perhaps most notable for the amount of stuff it doesn’t spell out along the way, trusting viewers to make up their own minds. This, however, can be taken too far: As much as I like Andie MacDowell in general (to the point of tolerating some dodgy line readings), she’s simply not given much to say here and the film feels weaker for being built on such a mystery. You can see how a modern retelling of the film, based on its imitators, would try to streamline the various charming little imperfections of the film—restricting the time continuity of the story to the days of the five events, spelling out subtleties, polishing some of the rough moments. It probably wouldn’t be as good, though: part of Four Weddings and a Funeral’s charm is how unassuming it is, and how it succeeds almost against all odds. That the result was often imitated yet rarely surpassed may be the ultimate compliment.
(In French, On TV, October 2015) I’m always fascinated by the oddball pockets of pop-culture history, and The Boat the Rocked revolves around something I didn’t know about—the pirate radio stations that broadcast rock music from the seas surrounding Great Britain in the late sixties and early seventies. Writer/director Richard Curtis fashions an ensemble comedy from various anecdotes and music of the era, never sticking too close to reality (thus introducing anachronisms that even colonials will be able to spot) but delivering a moderately entertaining film with an unexpectedly spectacular conclusion. The film begins as a young man makes his way to such a seaborne pirate station, meeting its various eccentric DJs and getting a close look at the government’s efforts to shut down the pirates. Numerous amusing moments follow. The cast is filled with known names goofing off, from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unabashedly American DJ to owner Bill Nighy to Nick Frost as a sex-obsessed cad. Rock Music is at the heart of the film, so you can expect a great soundtrack. (Fortunately, the French version of the film retains the original music, which compensates somewhat for the loss of the original actors’ voices.) The Boat That Rocked does take a turn for the unexpectedly dramatic toward the end, providing a big-scale conclusion to a film that seemed happy without such spectacle until then. It mostly manages to hit its target, but there is a gnawing sense that the film isn’t as good as it could have been given its subject matter and capable actors. The sprawling ensemble cast gets difficult to distinguish aside from the name actors, and the episodic one-anecdote-after-another nature of the film doesn’t help it feel more coherent. This being said, I’ll note that I saw a French-language dub of the American version of the film (“Pirate Radio”), which reportedly runs twenty minutes shorter than the original British version – I’m not sure that more material would help the film (which already feels sprawling), but it does feel as if something is missing. Still, The Boat the Rocked is more than worth a look, especially if you’re in the mood for a music-heavy comedy.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) On one hand, this is a terrible science-fiction film. On the other hand, this is an excellent science-fiction film. Those aren’t necessarily contradictions, if you accept that SF is at its best when it aims to illuminate facets of humanity and if you accept that genre SF has evolved to be as self-consistent as possible. Written and directed by Richard Curtis, a talented artist with no background in genre SF, About Time firmly belongs to the naïve school of SF that believes that the worst logical flaws are irrelevant as long as viewers are moved by the emotional consequences of the science-fictional device. And on that point, About Time is quite successful: While its time-traveling device isn’t much more that fuzzy wish-fulfilment (go in a closet, close your fists and wish really hard) with no consistent set of rules save for those that can be ignored by dramatic impact, the film does manage to poke at some of life’s biggest emotional dilemmas in a way that feels relatively fresh. It helps, of course, that it’s part of the gentle British rom-com tradition: Domhnall Gleeson makes for an affable romantic hero, whereas Bill Nighy steals every scene as an amiable man who has figured out much of his life. The film is a bit of a slow burn, starting in firmly comic territory before going into heavier themes. Sure, it’s frustrating that the rules of the premise don’t seem to hold together, or that lies seem built-in most of the protagonist’s relationships. But the film itself is pure charm, and such likability goes a long way in leaving viewers with a big smile and a bit of a heartache.