Lucky Break
review by Elias Savada, 19 April 52002

Box office lightning will not strike twice (or as big) for sophomore feature director Peter Cattaneo -- whose initial effort (the British mega-hit The Full Monty) nearly five years ago spawned over $200 million in foreign grosses, more than ten million U.S. admissions, and a phenomenal stage musical -- yet Lucky Break is still an adorably whimsical comedy that deserves more than a passing twinkle. It offers us the same type of oddball characters flitting about the screen that populated his earlier film; an amusing, albeit not all that original, premise; a clever, straight-forward style that showcases the thespian talent; and some dialogue lost in the transfer from British mouths to American ears, wherein a few subtitles might have come in handy.

Screenwriter Ronan Bennett, who tackled the more serious repercussions of prison life with The Break (1997), Love Lies Bleeding (1994), and a few other jail-based films, again moves his action behind bars, but lightens up the touch considerably in his first comedy, about a band of merry miscreants and smalltime crooks who stage an amateur musical to disguise an ingenious escape. He's speaking somewhat from experience -- he was incarcerated in Long Kesh Prison during the 1970s, and involved in an unsuccessful break out attempt.

And escape into the quirky world of Lucky Break I did, taking my own vacation from an unusually hot day (nearly 100 degrees) for the comfort of a theater seat in Northwest D.C., amidst a preview crowd that seemed exorbitantly giddy…and had a fine time with the film as well.

James Nesbitt (Waking Ned Devine) anchors the cast as Jimmy Hands, a warm-hearted, simple-minded drifter whose petty life on the wrong side of the law has never really panned out. As a child he liked occupying himself playing cops & robbers, but wasn't fond of playing the law enforcement role. After a fifteen-year bad streak, he and his dreadlocked pal Ruddy (Snatch's Lennie James), go for that one big job, a bank robbery on a bright London day that unfolds, disastrously, in a comic opening credit sequence. Obviously, some vocational training would have helped the pair; when a gun they have secured for the heist falls to pieces on the bank's floor, their career plans are equally shattered. The duo end up in a rural, medium-security facility, bathed in blue-steel light and uniforms, and ready for some similar sized jokes, a handful of sadistic guards, and Governor Graham Mortimer (Christopher Plummer), a calm, self-impressed warden infatuated with show tunes.

Wherein Jimmy, facing twelve years' imprisonment, finds himself a frequent guest of solitary confinement (what is this, a remake of The Great Escape?), the soundtrack tick-tocking off his perpetual boredom, the dullness occasionally broken when the semi-pompous Mortimer, his office nearby, breaks into spontaneous self-pleasing excerpts from South Pacific. Having a hint of show biz blood running through his own theatrical veins, Jimmy devises a makeshift plan to produce the governor's ham-hocked musical on the life on Admiral Nelson. This in-house musical messterpiece becomes the heavy-handed cover for a planned extra-curricular excursion. That's the film in a nut-shell, with Cattaneo layering the comedy with a bit of bittersweet social commentary, particularly in the guise of bad-luck criminal Cliff Gumbell, Jimmy's cellmate, a despondent simpleton constantly abused by Perry (Ron Cook), the quintessential nasty guard. This all ends in a too sad and predictable conclusion, but such reprehensible deeds demand a comic comeuppance, and viewers' expectations will be firmly met.

And yes, there's romance! The winsome Olivia Williams, introduced to moviegoers as the love interest of Kevin Costner in the dreary The Postman (Ugh, my first Internet-based review), plays engaging Annabel Sweep, an anger management behaviorist intent on breaking the inmates of their bad habits. It's a role she fills with a tempered determination, much like that of Miss Rosemary Cross, the widowed teacher she played enchantingly in Wes Anderson's delightful 1998 comedy Rushmore. She's such a treat!

While the actors add a wistful shine to the shenanigans, particularly Bill Nighy -- his features suggesting a British variation on Robert Redford -- as Roger Chamberlain, a fey, white-collar criminal and the only educated crook in the lot. Sharing his cell and on-screen time is Julian Barratt, imbuing arsonist Paul Dean with a manic dash of Crispin Glover. Frank Harper, one of the nastier crooks in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, brings that same ugliness (within comic reason) to John Toombes, a lifer hated by all the other prisoners and intent in pushing himself to the front of the escape line. You just don't play frontsies-backsies in jail and expect to get away scott free.

The preparations and actual production of Nelson The Musical are a genuine hoot, never the "liberating power of drama" it's excited creator believes it to be. Jimmy (as the one-armed, one-eyed admiral) and Annabel (as the Divine Emma, his play-within-a-film beloved) deal with their own romantic matters in front of and behind the curtain. The other star struck prisoners enlisted in the play and/or the plot (especially Rudy, too involved with a key second act solo -- with divinely funny lyrics penned by comedian/actor Stephen Fry -- to exit, stage right, to his freedom), overcome their inhibitions, stage fright, and even some of their anger-related issues, to bring the house down.

There's a lot to be said about aspiring to a life above incompetence. And Lucky Break shows that a small, slight slice of escapist comedy can be quite the disarming crowd-pleaser. Break out of your living rooms, scale the walls, and hum along.

Directed by:
Peter Cattaneo

James Nesbitt
Olivia Williams
Timothy Spall
Bill Nighy
Lennie James
Christopher Plummer

Written by:
Ronan Bennett





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