02 July 2012

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: MEN TAKING OFF THEIR CLOTHES

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: those of us mostly excited for Magic Mike on account of its director, Stephen Soderbergh, need to resign ourselves to the fact that for most people, this is a movie about Channing Tatum dancing about in the altogether. Films where male stripping makes up a significant plot point are rare; so rare, in fact, that only one surprise smash hit and Best Picture nominee fits the bill.

The Full Monty is a damned weird movie. Or no, that's not true at all: the movie itself is pointedly, even archetypally cozy and non-confrontational, the eager to be the most normal, pleasant experience possible that it barely even registers that the twin pillars it rests upon are crippling economic disenfranchisement and the commodification of the male body, two subjects that are as far removed from Family Fun Nite as you can possibly go before you turn around and start coming back. And while that certainly sounds damned weird, the movie itself is such a frivolous, flopsy thing that these subjects barely even register as sociologically loaded; I will not accuse it of turning them into the matter for a sitcom-style collection of low-grade farcical misadventures, for there's a certain melancholy drabness to the way the thing looks and even to its sense of humor at times, but the fact remains that there is a situation, that is comic, if you follow me. Certainly, if our aim is to see a film grapple with the pain and woes of post-industrial Great Britain using comedy as a salve to keep things from getting too hard to bear, we had best not tarry for too long at The Full Monty, which uses economic malaise as the central driver of nearly all of its story conflicts, but is not, by any stretch of the imagination, about economic malaise.

But I was making a point: the movie itself is not so much weird; the thing it became in cinema culture, however, is very weird indeed. I cannot begin to speak to how the film was received in its native Britain, but in the United States it was a positively seismic event, one of the great flashpoints of the short-lived independent movie scene that came into being midway through the 1990s and fizzled out right after the turn of the century. A time, you may remember, when the ramshackle but earnest little movies that still come out and still get awards season buzz and only get seen by a few thousand people each in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago were equally ramshackle but earnest, did just as well if not better with the Academy, and (a crucial difference), were seen by everybody. In that respect, The Full Monty was just one film out of a hundred must-see curios about real people in sort of real situations. On the other hand, none of those other hundred curios launched such a massive cottage industry, one that to my knowledge was never precisely defined nor given a name, and yet we all knew it at the time and were sore afraid: the "Wacky Misadventures of Working Class Brits". A companion of sorts to the more robust "Romantic Comedy with Hugh Grant (and Other Brits)" and a replacement for the briefly-dormant "British Literary Period Drama with Dozens of Important Character Actors" genre, the Wacky Misadventures template was very briefly one of the biggest things going, and then, hardly before you were completely sick of the damn things, they were gone. Or, if not gone, certainly robbed of all their social ubiquity; their place in the Cultural Dialogue taken, as will happen, by a new and still-active run of "Old British Women Being Charmingly Acerbic" pictures that accompanied (and was driven by, I should suppose), the ascendancy of Judi Dench and Helen Mirren to the status of honest-to-God movie stardom.

But that is the future! we are still in 1997, with the movie that, despite being toothless and cute and quite little in every possible way, devoured the world: netting one of the most altogether peculiar Best Picture nominations of the 1990s, and that was a good decade for peculiar Oscar nominees, while also blowing up at the box office like nobody's business, and even to this date, The Full Monty is the highest-grossing film internationally that was produced entirely by British money.

Does it deserve this? Not mine to say. Here, though, is the stuff of the movie, in case you weren't around at the time, or haven't thought about it since 1999 or so - and, Broadway musical adaptation notwithstanding, isn't this the very definition of a Zeitgeist hit that nobody has talked about at all since it made its first splash? - In Sheffield, in Yorkshire, everyone has been suffering since the local steel mill closed. The specific ex-steelworkers that we are concerned with to start at Gaz (Robert Carlyle) and Dave (Mark Addy), two sad sacks attempting to make ends meet in the absence of anything resembling a job for anybody in town by stealing scrap from the old factory and selling it for barely enough money to pay the rent and eat, and, in Gaz's particular case, to keep up his child support responsibilities to his preteen son Nathan (William Snape). In short order, and with strict accordance to the lightweight comedy rules stating that no character will have terribly clear or logical thoughts if it will get in the way of advancing the narrative, Gaz has struck on the idea of stripping as a foolproof way to put an easy couple of thousand pounds in his and Dave's pockets (it's not as arbitrary as I've made it sound - there's some business with a touring Chippendales show that sets it all in motion). One thing leads to another, and the duo starts casting about for anybody who can help them put on a show, and before long they're assembled a nice little collection of six desperate unemployed men who are willing to go full frontal - the title phrase, meaning "the whole thing" or thereabouts, is in reference to this, and was the subject of a teeth-grindingly annoying ad campaign in the States - including their old foreman and adversary, Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), as well as fellow lost souls Lomper (Steve Huison), Horse (Paul Barber), and Guy (Hugo Speer).

Six men is at least three more than the movie really wants to do much with, and it's pretty easy to say that we have on the one hand Gaz's woes as a father and Dave's woes as a husband, and on the other hand Lomper, Horse, and Guy, the latter two of whom don't really emerge as characters at all. Gerald manages to emerge from the general fog as a crusty but ultimately sympathetic example of the upwardly-mobile, image-obsessed sort whose pathetic attempts to keep his wife from knowing about his six months of unemployment are modestly tragic, but this has far more to do with Wilkinson's best-in-show performance than with Simon Beaufoy's screenplay, which has no interest in tragedy whatsoever, and only barely, and in a few scenes, manages to achieve even something like pathos.

All that being said, Beaufoy, and director Peter Cattaneo (who, unlike the writer, wasn't able to turn this into any kind of noteworthy career) make certain to spend at least a bit of time with every character, getting to know them and their lives; some cute business with Horse's family here, a love affair between Lomper and Guy there (introduced seemingly just to enable a lame pun, but I still have to give the filmmakers credit: even fifteen years later, it's impossible to imagine an American film about male strippers to introduce a homosexuality subplot that doesn't include a squeamish "I can't get naked in front of him!" moment, but it doesn't enter The Full Monty's mind in the slightest). So at least we don't feel like they're simply fulfilling a quota.

The bulk of the film is largely sweet and insubstantial, not so much "funny" as it is charming and grin-making - although there is a scene involving Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" playing on the radio in a queue line at the unemployment office that always gets me to laugh harder than I think I really had ought to - but Beaufoy does weave in just enough actual meaning and depth that you can see it if you want to; early scenes where the characters fret about whether a man who can't provide for his family and is so down on himself for being a schlub that he doesn't want to have sex can be rightly thought to be a man at all don't really give the film a "masculinity in crisis" theme, so much as they offer that theme to the viewer, who can then at his or her own desire read it into the film or ignore it as too dour in the face of all the cheerfulness displayed elsewhere. It's probably best to go the latter route; the film's idea of masculinity crisis is rather slick and obvious - no Martin Scorsese film, this - and resolved through largely contrived, movie script-ey means (a strip show that starts out embarrassing but becomes empowering, even though we have no way of knowing what percentage of the paying audience is cheering them on or laughing at them). I do admire the film's straightforward treatment of male body image issues - at best, only two of the six men come even close to the idea of what a stripper is meant to look like, and all of them know it and half massive self-judgment about it - but on the whole, it's approach to masculinity is neither probing nor insightful, while its approach to quirky situations anchored by relatively believable characters - the hallmark of all the best Wacky Misadventures of Working Class Brits pictures - is far stronger and leaves it a likable, friendly, if slight, comedy.

That, lest we forget, made a crapload of money and was nominated for lots of awards and built a cottage industry, while also raising the profile of a number of people on both side of the camera - Carlyle, Wilkinson, and Beaufoy in particular - and all despite being a fairly simple piece of filmmaking, with a drama that, by design, offers effectively no surprises whatsoever, carried along by characters whose arcs are mostly obvious within three or four minutes of meeting them, and filmed by Cattaneo in a style primarily designed to make the story as clear as humanly possible without giving us any real sense of place or time. It is a fun movie to watch, and by that measure alone it can be called "good"; there doesn't seem much point in evaluating it on any other grounds.

2 comments:

Neil Fulwood said...

The response was equally seismic in the UK, with a goodly number of cinemagoers making repeat visits to their local multiplex. My personal take on its success is that, in a national cinema whose two chief chroniclers of working class life - Mike Leigh and Ken Loach - often focus on the hardscrabble of their characters' day-to-day lives (lives that often compel them towards drink, drugs, domestic violence, etc etc), along came Beaufoy and Cattaneo who made a film which showed the camaraderie of working class life, the laconic but hard-won sense of humour, the piss-taking and the larking about.

An example: the scene where a viewing of a stolen video of 'Flashdance' - ostensibly to appraise the dance routines - turns into a critique of Jennifer Beals's welding technique. This immediately took me back to an evening from my childhood when my dad, a truck driver, had invited some mates round (among them other truckers and a couple of builders) for a few beers. Someone put the TV on to watch 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet'. One of my dad's friends watched ruminatively for a few minutes, took a swing of beer and grumbled, "I'll tell yer summat, that Jimmy Nail can't lay bricks for shit."

For this reason alone - because the dialogue and the interaction between the characters reminds me of so many people I've known, whereas the characters who populate the films of Leigh and Loach generally don't - I've always had a lot of love for 'The Full Monty'.

Andrew Testerman said...

Goodness knows when you'll get a chance to look at it, but having referenced it multiple times in past reviews and successfully identified its subgenre ("Wacky Misadventures of &c."), I would like to see you revisit Waking Ned. My grandparents made it their pet movie for a few years (others include The Secondhand Lions and The World's Fastest Indian, which should clue you in on their film preferences), and I remember it as a fluffy, charming village comedy; "The Flintstones in Ireland" I called it in my head.

Heaven knows if it still holds up, but I would happily read another take on Wacky British Character Actors, especially in light of the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, though I imagine that film falls under the "Old British Women Being &c." tag.