Starring Simon Pegg, Dylan Moran, Hank Azaria, and Thandie Newton. Directed by David Schwimmer. Written by Michael Ian Black and Simon Pegg. UK. 2007.
A movie about a guy running in a marathon to win back the love of his life does not have to be formulaic. It does not have to be formulaic much like a hungry kid does not have to eat a free hamburger. I won't be talking about the formulaic aspects of this movie. It is just sort of assumed they are there. Ok?
When Simon Pegg's Dennis flees Thandie Newton's Libby on a panicked wedding day, while she was pregnant, it is strange but we find ourself feeling worse for Dennis than Libby. He made the bad choice. He was the one suffering. Now, five years later, he is a sidebar to Libby's life, spending some shared time with their son Jake, and watching her fall in love and move on with Hank Azaria's Whit.
Dennis and Dennis's struggle is much like the core of another prime Pegg character: Shaun (as in of the Dead). A hapless, helpless individual representing not so much the dregs of British society as the crusty bit at the bottom of the better Britons. Somewhat noble in his heart, and willing enough to overcome that which makes him worthless enough to be endearing, the Dennis/Shaun archetype works and Pegg knows how to play him. He knows how to tweak it just to the point where you would write him off if he made one blunder all the while roping you in and wanting to see him better himself.
Pegg plays the role with so much heart, that just about everyone else feels a little plain next to him. He damn near outcutes the cute kid in the scenes they share, for gods sake. Everyone, that is, but Dylan Moran, who might be the man who induces the greatest amount of laughter per joke told for me. Something about his delivery is hardwired into my brain and I find myself guffawing at him saying stuff like "Would it be rude if I took a bath?" Moran throws just as much heart into a character that is essentially a variation of that same character he almost always plays, which means he has it down pat.
Some parts do not work quite so well. Pegg's job as a bad security guard feels somewhere between a little too loserish, a one-down from Shaun's electronics salesman, and a little John Waters. Cross dressers and mannequins helping to scratch an itch are funny, but mostly in that "what the hell?" sort of way. Possibly would have worked better with him a little more successful, and just as ineffectual, in his life. You begin to feel that Libby dodged a bullet on that one.
One of the biggest issues in the movie is the overly stereotypical landlord whose character is instantly memorable but who waivers between a racist joke with a funny accent, a fat joke (who is fatter than Dennis but accomplishes more, which may be the point), and a perfect sidekick role. I liked him overall, but that was a fine line they ended up walking.
However, this enabled them to introduce Maya, his daughter, played by India de Beaufort, who is possibly the hottest actress I have seen in years. I'll call it a wash.
Schwimmer's pacing leaves a little too wide of a gap in the build up stage, which might lose some people, but his handling of flashbacks and visual aids to show that Dennis's true enemy is not Azaria's Whit but his own insecurity and fears works really well. What is more, he manages to capture these scenes of British graffiti (possibly just props) that really help. There are many scenes where the background is a character in and of itself (the literary snob in me wishes to say "A vertible Dickensian fog"). Well shot for his debut.
The movie gets a good ranking from me, a general recommendation to watch it, and a description of being both "cute" and "effective". It could have been tighter and less formulaic, but then again, it could have been much worse. It has about as much freshness as the genre allows. Probably more a rental or theater trip than a buy-on-DVDer, but worth at least one watching.
Written by W Doug Bolden
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