Bared teeth but no bite

Image of Nigel Andrews

In the Loop ★★☆☆☆ (Armando Iannucci)
In Search of Beethoven ★★★★☆ (Phil Grabsky)
Good ★☆☆☆☆ (Vicente Amorim)
Before I Forget ★★★☆☆ (Jacques Nolot)
I Love You Man ★★★☆☆(John Hamburg)
Not Easily Broken ★★☆☆☆(Bill Duke)

Satire is a perilous business. Taking the lid off something, one should be sure that that “something” is not past its spoof-by date. In the Loop is a satire on the Anglo-American “special relationship” from the team, led by director/co-writer Armando Iannucci, that brought you TV’s The Thick of It. That was a rabid version of Yes, Minister, the BBC’s dearly beloved mickey-take on the British way of politics. This – Iannucci’s large-screen lampoon on the corridors of power and PR – is a rabbit version of The Thick of It. It scurries about for two hours with bared but biteless teeth, as a delegation of Brits dominated by Thick’s Peter Capaldi as the effing and blinding prime ministerial communications chief Malcolm Tucker (all resemblances to New Labour’s Alastair Campbell entirely intentional) overrun the Washington DC lettuce patch on the brink of a threatened Middle East war.

A gaffe-prone David from ministerial London (Tom Hollander) goes up against a hulking if well-intentioned US Goliath (James Gandolfini as a dove-ish General with Colin Powell resemblances) in a US capital patched together – and looking it – on British soundstages. The parody of diplomatic complication is wearingly complicated: if you can follow the plot you should be in the Civil Service. Sometimes a funny line rears up to relieve the fatigue, though at my screening the loudest laugh was occasioned by a fortuitous topicality. Says a Westminster MP: “I’m dead scared if I watch a porno it’ll end up in the register of members’ interests.”

Capable performers (Chris Addison, Steve Coogan, Gina McKee) rush about, while Iannucci’s direction is characterised by blind bustle and hiccupy zooms. Back to the drawing board? Back, I fear, to an even earlier evolutionary stage: to the time when Yes, Minister, Spitting Image and indeed The Thick of It had not used up all the best venom concerning the ruling class’s failure to rule and the communications industry’s failure to communicate.

In Search of Beethoven, Phil Grabsky’s 138-minute documentary about the Bonn-born brainstormer, destined to segue from large screen to small in five summer-scheduled parts, is a wallow for the music-minded. One wallow does not make a summer, but the combined forces of Ludwig’s music and a chorus of celebrity erudition (Chailly, Norrington, Repin, Grimaud) should help to take your mind off the April cacophony elsewhere (Dragonball Evolution, Fast and Furious etc).

Turning the pages of Beethoven’s life and oeuvre, the film pauses for practical illustrations from orchestra and keyboard. There are lovely passing remarks: “Mozart wrote for Saturday, Beethoven for eternity,” says someone, comparing the assignment-happy Austrian skylark with the German stormy petrel. I am not sure – invoking that demon-driven stereotype – that Team Grabsky presents a new Beethoven, despite pre-publicity claims. The film, quoth they, “delves beyond the tortured, cantankerous, unhinged personality to reveal something quite different”. But do we even want a new or different Beethoven? Isn’t the old one rich and challenging enough – and as this film shows, still infinitely explorable?

A hundred years after Beethoven’s death the German nation picked the wrong messiah, empowered him and engendered a historical-inquest culture addicted ever since to the self-congratulation of hindsight enlightenment. Most Hitler films made in the modern west say essentially: “What a monster. We wouldn’t have stood for him. We would have seen him off.” But would we?

Good does this hindsight wisdom to a tee. It may have been a good stage play: people say it was. But its author, the late C.P. Taylor, was not around to stop it becoming a lousy film. Brazilian director Vicente Amorim pushes Viggo Mortensen (conscience-stricken professor), Jason Isaacs (tormented Jewish psychoanalyst) and Jodie Whittaker (Third Reich bimbo) around the screen like backgammon pieces. Each is wooden; each goes through his appointed squares; sometimes one removes another from the board. There is life only in the hands that move them and not much even there.

Curio of the week, possibly the month, is Jacques Nolot’s Before I Forget. This French portrait of an ageing gay bird (played by Nolot) pecking at memory and reality as the doors of his Paris flat swing open and shut to passing “tricks”, and the doors of his mind to passing moments of Proustian recall, is oddly affecting even while oddly inert. No one quite acts; they read lines. The camera doesn’t exactly move; it sits and stares. But any film that boasts two jokes about Roland Barthes and one scene – surreal, deadpan, inspired – of superannuated cross-dressing will take its place, for some, near the front of the must-see queue. NA

Karl French on more of the week’s releases:
A couple of years ago Daniel Auteuil starred in Mon Meilleur Ami as a self-centred businessman compelled by convoluted plot machinations to conjure up a best friend. This seems to have been the inspiration for the hit-and-miss comedy I Love You Man. The ubiquitous Paul Rudd stars as Peter Klaven, a likeable if gauche Los Angeles estate agent whose fiancée Zooey (the winsome Rashida Jones) is troubled by his lack of male friends. So he sets himself the challenge of finding himself a fast friend, fast enough to serve as his best man.

So the scene is set for a succession of set-pieces exploring the comic potential of embarrassment. Peter sets about his task as if he were seeking a romantic partner. When he does find his best pal-to-be he comes in the just-about loveably slobbish form of Sydney, played by Josh Segel.

Wild, profane, offensive, obsessively honest, borderline crazy Sydney and uptight, repressed Peter somehow form a bond and construct a friendship around a shared passion for the 1980s rock band Rush. A strong supporting cast and at least half a dozen good laughs may be insufficient reward for some longueurs, several gags involving dog excrement, and perhaps rather too many scenes that are more excruciating than amusing.

Oddly, the last and least release of the week, Not Easily Broken, also centres on the romantic travails of an LA estate agent. This film opens with realtor Clarice (Taraji P. Henson) and her groom Dave (Morris Chestnut) exchanging vows. The rather crude, occasionally risible, if never actively dislikeable melodrama that follows – freighted with heavy Christian overtones – shows the strain that modern life exerts on these vows. Incidentally, it is striking that neither of these films really engages with the troubles facing the American property market.

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