Movie Review: A Bunch of Amateurs

December 21, 2008

Clapperboard A Bunch of Amateurs is a comedy by Andy Cadiff, released in the UK on 19 December.  The leading character, Jefferson Steel (played by Burt Reynolds), is a once famous actor now well past his prime.  Right at the beginning of the movie, he is shown watching one of his old films in a small, almost empty cinema.  The irony is that in comparison with my real life surroundings the on-film movie audience looked like a crowd.  My son and I were quite literally the only two people watching ABoA, notwithstanding that it was a new release, on Screen 6 of Manchester’s modern AMC multiplex on a Saturday night.  Now I know there was the temptation of other releases such as Twilight, but for a film picked for the 2008 annual Royal Film Performance, and with a cast including Imelda Staunton, Samantha Bond and Derek Jacobi, it is hard to credit such an extreme lack of interest.

I did though rapidly come to the conclusion that my son and I were wrong, and everyone else was right.  ABoA was very weak and certainly failed the Kermode 5 laugh test.  I don’t think I got past a half-chuckle.

The film tries to capture the quaint uniquely British charm of films such as “A Private Function”, “Waking Ned”, “Brassed Off” or “The Full Monty” but all we get is the usual rag-tag of cheesy stereotypes.  There is supposed to be comedic value in the clash of lifestyles between Hollywood star Jefferson Steel and the quiet rurality of an archetypal farming village in Suffolk.  Plenty of scope for amusing misunderstandings given that Steel, desperate for work, believes his agent has landed him the part of King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon, whereas he is actually responding to a plea from a cash-strapped amateur dramatic society in the village of Stratford St John, Suffolk.  It should have been possible to make this funny but it doesn’t come off.  The jokes are without exception corny and very, very obvious.  You can pretty much work out the next line in your head before it is spoken.

Imelda Staunton and Derek Jacobi were criminally wasted.  Directed to ham it up in the hope of extracting some laughs, but the results were just cringe-making, especially Staunton’s character’s puerile attempts to seduce Jefferson Steel.

As if the absence of new gags wasn’t bad enough, the film tries to impart some distinctly hackneyed life lessons, about father-daughter relationships. It does so by contriving to have the events in the film loosely follow the plot of King Lear, the play the amateur society is putting on.  So we get Staunton (who in the film plays Lear’s daughter Goneril in the amateur production) professing her love to Jefferson (Lear) only to betray him, just as Goneril does to Lear in Shakespeare’s play.  Jefferson falls out with his own daughter in the film (played by Camilla Arfwedson) even though she is the one who deep down truly does love him, referring to the relationship between Lear and daughter Cordelia.  And we get an absurdly contrived scene of madness on the heath when Jefferson walks out on the troupe of amateur actors in a tantrum, drives off into the rain and gets lost.

I can’t work out who this plot device is targeted at.  If you are sufficiently into your Shakespeare to appreciate it the chances are your tastes are too sophisticated for the clichéd jokes.

The only actor who comes out of this with any credit is Samantha Bond, in the role of the director of the amateur play.  She is the one character we really can warm to.

What else can I say in defence of ABoA? Well, I kept watching.  Even if I was unamused, unsurprised and failed to buy into the premise, at least my attention didn’t wander too much of the time.  Now I’m damning it with faint praise, but it’s more than can be said for some other critically acclaimed films.

My son yelled out his ironic thanks to the projectionist as we walked out, in the absence of anyone else in the auditorium.  I don’t know if there was anyone in the projection booth to hear him.

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One comment

  1. So this film was fit for a queen, even with all the swearing? There was quite a bit, even in a “mild” film like this. Then again, these days if you wanted a completely inoffensive film to show Her Majesty you’d have to resort to Madagascar II or something at that level.

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