Wednesday, May 24, 2006

PICCADILLY JIM spits on the grave of Ian Curtis

As a god-fearing English(wo)man, I think cricket is proof of the existence of a benevolent god and that HP sauce is culinary genius. But, while Shakespeare could clearly take Moliere and Goethe in a straight fight, I'd rather read P.G. Wodehouse. For P.G. Wodehouse wrote novels that combine slapstick comedy, social satire, Byzantine plots and quintessentially English nonsense. I was, then, somewhat disappointed when I realised that a rare screen adaptation of Wodehouse's novel, Piccadilly Jim, was not going to be given a UK cinematic release. On paper, it looked like it couldn't fail. A frothy plot full of mistaken identity, love, hate, dynamite, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles... It also features a script by Oscar-winning screen-writer Julian Fellowes and a cast of fantastic British and American actors. But, sad to say, this adaptation of PICCADILLY JIM is a failure on almost every level. Given the quality of the base text, and the writing and acting talent attached to this project, one can only assume that this failure is down to a horrific misinterpretation of Wodehouse on the part of the director, a chap called John McKay.

As I said, the source text is a light, frothy farce. There are two American sisters of immense wealth called Eugenia (Allison Janney) and Nesta (Brenda Blethyn). Nesta is a writer of salacious novels who is trying to cultivate a salon. To wit, she is harbouring a number of young artists in her house, not to mention her idiot nephew, Patridge (Tom Hollander) who is apparently concocting a new sort of WMD called Patridgite. Nesta is married to a mild-mannered financier called Mr Pett and has a loathsome, fat, spoiled son called Ogden. She also has a charming niece by marriage called Ann (Frances O'Connor). Ann wrote a book of poetry that was ridiculed in print by one "Piccadilly Jim" - a disolute dandy called Jim Crocker (Sam Rockwell). Now here's where the fun begins. Jim's dad, Bingley Crocker (Tom Wilkinson) is married to Nesta's sister, Eugenia. In typically Wildean style, when Jim falls in love with Ann, he pretends to be a clean-living man named Algernon, rather than the Jim Crocker she thinks that she hates. Then, in a turn of comic genius, pretends to be himself in order to pull off the "inside job" of kidnapping Ogden to make Ann happy. But of course, Ogden, being loathsome, is in on the act for 50%. At the same time, Ann's suitor, Lord Wisbeach (Hugh Bonneville), is being impersonated by a German spy who is after Patridge's WMD. Oh, and Crocker's dad (a failed actor) is pretending to be Nesta's butler.

Now, this is an awful lot of plot (and not even the half of it) for a movie that lasts seventy minutes, and the key to getting these sorts of films to work is to keep the atmosphere light and to play it *absolutely straight*. The plot is so ridiculous and convoluted - the characters so bizarre to a modern eye - that the only way to make it fly is if everyone involved has an absolute conviction that this Wodehousian world actually exists. That is the genius of the recent Stephen Fry-Hugh Laurie Jeeves & Wooster TV adaptations. The antics may be eccentric, but within the coherent 1930s world shown on screen, they make absolute sense.

It is here that I feel that the director made a complete pigs-ear of this adaptation. Instead of running with a straightforward period comedy - trusting in Wodehouse to make the audience empathise and laugh - he tinkered with the formula. So what we have is a design mish-mash - caricatured 30s costumes meet almost contemporary stylings. The hero, Jim Crocker, walks around in a cheap lounge suit that would not look out of place in a 1980s night-club in Essex. The music is also all over the place. We have glitzy cabaret singers crooning schmaltzy covers of 80s classics such as Joy Division's superlative lament, Love Will Tear Us Apart. Unforgiveable. And to cap it all off, there are lots of hysterical over-the-top performances by actors who should know better but have obviously been badly directed. It's a crying shame.

PICCADILLY JIM toured the festival circuit but was not released in the UK. It was released on DVD on Monday.

1 comment:

  1. Not to mention that the book was first published in 1916, so one wonders why set it in the 1930s? I'm reading it at the moment and it's one of Wodehouse's best.