Monday, February 21, 2011

44 Inch Chest

I don't know why, but the buzz I heard about 44 Inch Chest was that it was a risque exploration of misogyny.  That's not something that I always enjoy, but I do like British crime stories, and I generally like Ray Winstone, John Hurt, and Ian McShane; I've also heard that the writers, who wrote Sexy Beast, have a talent for over-the-top characters.  All of that combined with the tagline ("The Measure of Revenge") to make me think that this could be a decently cool movie.

The story begins with Colin (Ray Winstone) on the floor of his home, which appears to have been recently ransacked.  At first, I thought he was dead, but it turns out he was just in shock.  You see, his wife of over a decade, Liz (Joanne Whalley) just left him.  One of Colin's buddies calls him on the phone, gets a mumbled reply, and hurries over because something is obviously wrong.  Once Archie (Tom Wilkinson) is able to comprehend what has happened --- Colin is doing a lot of sobbing and playing Nilsson's "Without You" over and over again, which would be more than enough for me to slap him silly --- he decides to do what any good friend would in a similar situation.  Archie calls together Colin's closest friends --- Mal (Stephen Dillane), Peanut (John Hurt), and Meredith (Ian McShane) --- and they all agree that the one way for Colin to get over this emotionally devastating moment is for him to spend time with his friends (obviously), drink a lot of liquor (makes sense) and then torture and murder Liz and her lover (natura --- wait, what?).  Colin had dragged loverboy's name out of Liz before she left, so the friends find his work, kidnap him, and throw him in a cupboard until Colin can work up the desire to kill the bastard.  What are friends for?

I'm going to go ahead and say that the general premise of this movie is awesome.  It takes a classic idea, that of a cuckolded man reacting to his situation with violence, and twists it around; instead of Colin being the bloodthirsty and revenge-obsessed monster, his friends are.  In fact, they heckle Colin for not immediately killing loverboy.  If I were in Colin's place, I have no doubt that my friends would choose to cheer me up with friendship and booze (and, let's face it, movies), but murder seems like an unusual remedy for soul-crushing depression; I doubt more than one of my friends would suggest that route to happiness. 

This was the first full-length motion picture directed by Malcolm Venville, and I like his style.  There are large chunks of this movie that take place within the mind of Colin, with his friends personifying his conflicting thoughts.  This could have been very confusing, since the friends are physically present as well, but Venville finds a way to differentiate between the imaginary characters and the actual ones.  I thought that all the actors were directed well, even if I hate seeing Ray Winstone as anything less than a scary mofo.  But even that worked out well; when Winstone switched from sobbing self-pity to helpless rage, the contrast made his anger seem all the more dangerous.

The acting was good all around.  As I mentioned, Ray Winstone plays outside of his comfort zone as the heartbroken Colin, but his intensity is still obvious.  I would have preferred more of his anger and less of his crying, but that's because I get a little uncomfortable watching frightening men cry.  Tom Wilkinson did a good job as the most reasonable and understanding friend of the bunch, although I was never clear on why his character (who seems nice) would be a party to murder.  Stephen Dillane, sure, I can buy that.  Ian McShane?  Definitely.  But Wilkinson's character felt a little out of place.  I definitely enjoyed McShane's homosexual gambler character; I usually don't include sexual orientation in character descriptions, but it's a significant part of his character.  Normally, British crime movies spend a decent amount of time ridiculing gay characters, but McShane's strong and charismatic jerk was a refreshing take.  John Hurt was amusing as the hate-spewing Peanut, although his bit about Samson and Delilah was a strange detour in the story.  It's hard to judge Joanne Whalley's performance, since it takes place primarily within Colin's tortured mind; she assumes whatever personality suits the plot at that moment, so it's not your typical film performance.

Now, you might assume that I really enjoyed this movie.  Well, I didn't.

Despite some clever direction, solid acting, and a good premise, 44 Inch Chest has one major weakness: the story.  The premise is established within the first seven minutes of the film; Colin is heartbroken and loverboy is kidnapped.  The rest of the movie (about a hour and a half) is Colin deciding whether or not to kill the guy.  Let me tell you, that time drags.  Nothing happens in this movie after the kidnapping.  Each of the friends tells a story about something that loosely relates the their current situation, Colin acts wounded and lame, and then it cycles again.  And what is the deal with these friends?  None of them appear to be criminals, so their quick and confident kidnapping and their pestering of Colin to kill loverboy is damned odd.  They act like professionals, but at least two of them (McShane and Winstone) are explicitly not hoodlums.  Leaving that unexplained in a dialogue-heavy movie is very unusual.  The dialogue is okay, but it's not fantastic, and it absolutely needs to be when the audience is waiting 90 minutes for one character to make one decision.  And that's what this movie boils down to: a lot of good work wasted by a story that could have been told in ten minutes.

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