Thursday, January 28, 2010

Brits Behaving Badly: 44 Inch Chest

An aging football hooligan with a broken heart is not a pretty sight. At least Colin Diamond has friends willing to help make things right by kidnapping his wife’s lover. In between the beatings they inflict on the poor other man, they cuss up a blue streak and generally get on each others’ nerves in Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest (trailer here), a dark little morality play opening tomorrow in New York.

Aside from his money, middle-aged Diamond is not much of a catch, but he evidently loved his wife Liz with genuine ardor. When she announces her intention to leave, he completely breaks down mentally and emotionally. Fortunately, his mates have just the cure: the offending “Loverboy” tied up and ready to be killed at his leisure.

It is not exactly clear what Diamond’s friends ordinarily do for a living, except for Meredith, who seems to be something of a professional gambler with a Noel Coward demeanor. Naturally, he gets under the skin of Old Man Peanut, a homophobic, misogynistic misanthrope. Despite his smarmy exterior, Mal also seems to have an ocean of contempt bottled up inside him. Even Archie, the faithful mother’s boy, has no reservations regarding the premeditated execution of London’s unluckiest French waiter.

No one would ever want to spend any length of time with this ferocious Fab Four, but as on-screen heavies played by four of the best British character actors working in film today, they are jolly good expletive-laden fun. Ian McShane (a.k.a. Lovejoy) delivers Meredith’s cutting dialogue with panache, investing the film with an electric magnetism and sinister charm. As Peanut, John Hurt is compulsively watchable. Gaunt and twitchy, he looks like a feral cat and projects and similar sense of ill contained menace. Though their characters are not quite as sharply drawn, Stephen Dillane and Tom Wilkerson are unsettlingly effective conveying the not-so latent sociopathic impulses of Mal and Archie, respectively. The weakest link of Inch might actually be Ray Winstone, who does not leave nearly as strong an impression as the psychologically challenged Diamond.

Had Inch simply focused on its contemptible but entertaining supporting cast, letting them start at the beginning, strutting and cursing their way through to the end, it would have been a very satisfying picture. Unfortunately, the script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (the writing team responsible for Sexy Beast) craters under its own narrative pretensions, leaving audiences to wonder ultimately what was the point of all that.

Though too clever for its own good, the intense supporting performances from the Gang of Four certainly give Inch a distinctive flair that is never dull. Still, viewers should be specifically warned, the film’s profane language makes Mamet’s dialogue sound like a Hallmark Channel original production. It opens tomorrow (1/29) at the Village East.