Monday, April 2, 2012

The Tall Guy (Smith 1989)

It is kind of amazing how much charm can play a role in my like or dislike of a film. For example, take the film The Tall Guy, a 1989 film directed by Mel Smith (Bean), written by the great Richard Curtis (the writer and director of one of my perennial Christmas time favourites, Love, Actually): for the most part, the film is a whimsical romantic comedy and lampooning of the world of British stage acting. Yet late in the film, a character makes a rather serious transgression whose ramifications go unexplored. Worse, the film then asks audiences to forgive this transgression, and to buy that another would be willing to forgive when no real penance has been paid.

And yet forgive I do. I forgive not just the character of his transgressions, but the film as a whole for its flaws; I forgive the filmmakers for their missteps. And I forgive because, when all is said and done, the finished film is so damn charming that I want to ignore the flaws and the nagging moral questions my critical self brings to the film. I want to root for these characters, to get the “happy” ending even when the film doesn’t quite earn it.

The story of The Tall Guy is that of Dexter King (Jeff Goldblum), an American actor living in London who for six years has held the less than glamorous position of being the straight man to Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson) in a successful comedy stage show. Ignored by audiences and detested by the arrogant Anderson, Dexter seems to be stuck in a runt until a visit to the doctor for his hay fever leads him into the path of Kate (Emma Thompson), a nurse whom he becomes smitten. While the initial stages of their relationship result in Dexter’s firing by Anderson, Dexter soon bounces back when he lands the lead role in a musical stage adaptation of The Elephant Man. Of course, being a romantic comedy, complications arise from Dexter’s success, resulting in Dexter having to make a last ditch effort to try and save his relationship with Kate.

If the plot sounds like standard romantic comedy fare, it is. Yet what saves the film and gives it much of its charm is the way in which it captures a particular slice of London life at a specific time. Yes, the film is filled with flights of fancy and broad comedy, yet between Curtis’s script and Smith’s direction, the film feels like it has a level of emotional and situational authenticity lacking in other romantic comedy efforts, particularly with regards to the film’s satirical jabs at the worlds of musical theatre and stage comedy. The crowning achievement of the film is the sequence in which viewers are presented “highlights” from the musical Elephant, though sadly in the twenty-three years since The Tall Guy’s release, the concept of a musical based on The Elephant Man has gone from being a satirical gag to probably a more reasonable idea than what actually has been turned into a stage musical in recent years (Legally Blonde and Spider-Man, anybody?).

While the satire of the film is perhaps its strongest element, it is the chemistry of the leads which keeps the film together even when it starts to become muddled. While the pairing of Goldblum and Thompson is not an obvious one, the choice turns out to be a rather inspired, as both manage to ground their rather eccentric characters in a way which allows viewers (well, at least this viewer) to accept the more fantastical scenes of the film, including a rather absurd sex scene. Goldblum also has an excellent comic rapport with Atkinson, the latter who is given a delightfully dick-ish character to play in Anderson.

Yet for all of the film’s positive points, the second half of the film in which the relationship of Dexter and Kate fractures does not quite work. (NOTE: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) The drama of the third act hinges upon an issue of infidelity, and while the subject is one worth exploring in film romances, it feels tacked on in this film, seemingly coming out of nowhere and only serving to break up the central relationship because, well, that’s what most romantic comedies do. At no point does the film make much of an effort to explore the subject, and the resolution to this part of the story is far too clean, undermining whatever little dramatic weight the plot point had to start with.

But darn it, there is still that issue of just how charming the film is. Made on a modest budget, the film feels like a real homemade effort despite the presence of Hollywood star Goldblum, whose presence in the film is reportedly due to an actors’ strike in Hollywood. There is clearly such passion put forth on the part of the filmmakers that no matter how clunky the film gets as it goes on, it is hard not to stay engaged and root both for the film’s protagonists and for the filmmakers themselves.

The film is available on DVD from Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, who controls most of the Miramax film library at the moment. The DVD is a serviceable effort for a budget title, though the film deserves a better release, one which at least features the longer cut of the film released in the UK but was trimmed for some baffling reason for the North American market. Still, the film comes recommended, especially for fans of Curtis who wish to take a look at his earliest effort in the romantic comedy genre.

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