2007Director: Andrew O’Connor
Cast: David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Peter Capaldi
wanted to like this film. I had even allowed myself, fool that I am, to expect that it wouldn’t push me even closer to the edge of despair. However, as Alice Walker once told me—or someone else—“expect nothing, live frugally on surprises.” If only I had taken her good advice. But I had reason for hope here, a case for optimism. “Peep Show” (starring Mitchell and Webb, written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong and directed by O’Connor) was the best British sitcom of the last ten years—propelled by a relentless, authentic and hilarious misanthropy. Unfortunately, none of the astute, observational humor has made it to the big screen and we are left with an unattractive and inept squib of a movie, fit only for the overly depressed or undernourished.
The narrative is simple enough and a promising one for a comedy set-up. Spiteful stage magicians Harry and Karl compete against one another in a magic competition, coming to terms with their longstanding feud along the way. Unfortunately, Mitchell and Webb, whose independent talents were first called into question with last year’s disastrous (i.e. not funny) sketch show “That Mitchell and Webb Look,” are not aided by the crass script, ugly visual design and poor supporting cast.
There’s an undeniable sense that the whole project has been rushed to capitalize on the parochial fame of the duo—a pretty much ubiquitous act on British screens at present. The visual gimmick of “Peep Show” is that every image is a point-of-view shot, creating a unique and unsettling intimacy. Without this stricture, O’Connor displays an inability to construct a meaningful visual narrative or overarching sense of purpose. There’s a nagging awkwardness to the film, the result of talented people out of their depth, not yet ready to make this commitment to film history.
Britain has produced some unbelievable misfires in recent years, borne from the misguided ambition to move from the workaday accomplishments of television to the specialist, demanding realm of filmmaking: Up and Under, Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Confetti are just three such aberrations. The most galling aspect of their existence is that, within the highly competitive but drastically underfunded UK film industry, these worthless ego-fluffers are quite literally standing in the way of more interesting, challenging filmmaking. Whoever bankrolls these flops represent a narcissistic, destructive force that throttles and shames the national intelligence and reputation. Moreover, these films are often commercial flops with no selling potential to America, yet another reason to restrict such unambitious and tawdry projects to the small screen as an exercise in, if not good sense, then damage limitation.
Comedies are the most harshly judged of all genres. A horror film that’s not scary still has schlock value; a romance still has a certain foolish charm; an action film has explosions and violence. A comedy without laughs, however, has nothing. In fact, the humor in comedies is like a light-switch at a party. As long as everyone’s having a good time, you don’t notice a thing. But if the laughs dry up and the good times stall, the lights are switched on and you soon realize how inappropriate and weird everything is: a bunch of vulnerable people stranded together, bobbing about with no particular justification. It is with this sense of startled mortification that I endured the film which did, at least, have the good grace to end, eventually.
Hopefully, the next trick of this wheezing duo won’t be to embark on another cinematic misadventure. I sincerely hope that all concerned concentrate on producing another wholly original and unparalleled television show as they are all capable of more substantial work. Ultimate responsibility must fall upon Bain and Armstrong as the harmless, ordinary script damned this project from the off. They, most of all, now have a point to prove.
Magicians is currently playing in wide release in the UK.