You can’t beat a catchy song

Although they differ in their views of love and friendship, this week’s films all recognise the value of a catchy song. In the best of them, a tune that sticks in the mind is just one of many elements – a playful score being another – that contribute to an atmosphere of joyous energy that also acknowledges, rather than denying or ignoring, the existence of such things as regret, humiliation and heartbreak. That was also among the achievements of its director Stephen Frears’s most fondly remembered romantic comedy My Beautiful Launderette. Also released this week are two flat-footed instances of the genre, Going the Distance and Cyrus, which serve to emphasise the British film’s flair.

Tamara Drewe is a broadly faithful adaptation of Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel, itself an unfaithful and impudent adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd. That in turn took its title from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. We are a long way from Gray’s “Elegy” when the film’s newspaper columnist heroine (Gemma Arterton) cruises back into the Dorset village where she grew up with Lily Allen’s song “The Fear” blaring from the speakers of her Mini. Tamara’s journey is interrupted by a windscreen-egging perpetrated by Jodie (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie), a pair of foul-mouthed 15-year-olds who serve as the film’s chorus and as catalysts for its intricate plot.

Instead of forged letters – traditional chaos-causing ammunition – Jodie and Casey use e-mails and text messages to complicate things between Tamara and her suitors – old humble boyfriend Andy (Luke Evans) and new rock star boyfriend Ben (Dominic Cooper), who seduces her with a percussive performance involving kitchen utensils, just as Hardy’s Frank Troy impresses Bathsheba Everdene with a private display of swordsmanship. Also pining for Tamara – newly beautiful after nose-reduction surgery – is the oily, philandering thriller-writer Nicholas (Roger Allam).

The film’s treatment of its characters is generous without being soft. Glen (Bill Camp), a good-natured American academic writing a study of Hardy, has a tendency towards self-pity and a habit of making remarks like “cows ... exude bovine malice”; Ben, the obstacle between Andy and Tamara, is oafish but not villainous; even Nicholas’s misconduct is shaded by the complicity of his wife Beth, played with palpable hurt by Tamsin Greig, as much the film’s star as Arterton.

Moira Buffini’s script draws out the similarities between adultery and plot-making; Barden and Christie are superb as the gossip-loving mischief-makers. The film gets better as it goes along; in terms of pure giggle-inducing brio, it recalls Amy Heckerling’s Valley Girl comedy Clueless, an update of a classic (Jane Austen’s Emma) that is now a classic in its own right. ()

One of the naughty schoolgirls in Tamara Drewe is celebrated over the end credits in the song “Jailbait Jodie”. The same term is applied to another 15-year-old with father issues, Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), the lead singer of all-girl rock group The Runaways. Floria Sigismondi’s film has been made at least partly because one of its heroines, Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), had a monster hit with a cover version of The Arrows’ “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll”. That song crops up in the final scene as a way of emphasising Jett and Currie’s disparate fortunes after the break-up of The Runaways, with Jett being interviewed on the radio as Currie listens from the shop floor where she works.

The film, an adaptation of Currie’s memoir, is hazy both as a portrait of teenage excess (a lot of pouting, kissing, and kicking of dustbins) and as an account of The Runaways’ fame in the second half of the 1970s (they appear to have been big in Japan). The other band members are individualised only to the extent that Snow White’s band members were individualised but Michael Shannon gives a suitably deranged performance as the band’s manager Kim Fowley. ()

Cyrus, directed by the brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, and produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, is about family difficulties – those created by an outsider variously seen as an essential addition and an unwelcome intrusion. The film is told from the perspective of John (John C. Reilly), bringer of happiness to the single mother Molly (Marisa Tomei) whom he woos with a house-party singalong to The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”. But the relationship sends Molly’s 20-year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill) into a competitive fury.

The film shows hints of the farcical humour of producer-director Judd Apatow – it stars three of his collaborators – while retaining the gentler tone previously favoured by the Duplass brothers, who come from the alternative “mumblecore” movement. We are led to expect comic warfare involving cruel practical jokes but suddenly it emerges that Cyrus isn’t malevolent, merely troubled. This film has its admirers, but I found it not-quite-funny, not-quite-insightful, and altogether oddly weighted. ()

In Going the Distance, the struggling couple Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) bond first over Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ Stone” (the answer to a pub quiz question) and then over Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”, which Garrett’s flatmate plays through the bedroom wall as an accompaniment to the couple’s lovemaking.

Like Cyrus, the film is at risk of being two things at once. Is it a romantic comedy replete with the now-standard body humour, or a Film on a Theme – namely the difficulties of conducting a long-distance relationship when both people work in struggling industries (music, print media) and therefore have difficulty finding a new job in a strange city? A final scene in which a child witnesses her parents dry-humping on a dining-room table tips the scales in the direction of the former.

But the film has its share of laughs – by my count, seven titters and three chuckles. ()
Nigel Andrews’ next dispatch from the Venice Film Festival will appear in Saturday’s FT Weekend

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