Not too long ago, I used to get excited when good actors would make movies together. They didn’t have to be great movies, Barbet Schroeder could have directed them or Sandra Bullock could have starred in them–I’m fairly certain this period was known as the 1990s. It’s taken me three years to see Piccadilly Jim, which never got a domestic release, so it’s not as far out of the 1990s as it could be. It’s an absurd comedy, using an overblown emphasis on the popular conceptions of the 1930s to attempt to endear itself on the audience. Essentially, it’s the same concept as Radioland Murders, only successful. It’s successful for a few reasons. I’ll get the least exciting ones out of the way. First, the scope. Whether it’s London or New York of the 1930s, the scope is wonderful. There’s some extra-glossy, CG-enhanced scenery, but mostly it’s interiors. McKay does it beautifully. It’s exploitative, how interesting he makes the film look. It’s probably to distract from how confusing it is to understand and how unbelievable it is. Second, the script. Julian Fellowes essentially takes a Marx Brothers movie, removes the Marx Brothers, removes the songs, changes the focus to the young couple in trouble and runs with it. He assigns the Marx Brothers’s tasks to the young couple, it’s an interesting way of doing it and it works. Of course, it might have worked that way in the source material. I don’t know.
Now, the gushy part. While Piccadilly Jim is not the finest exhibit of Sam Rockwell’s acting abilities, it’s fun. He’s funny, he immediately engages the viewer. It probably was not a hard role, but he does it perfectly. Frances O’Connor, who’s constantly appearing and disappearing from cinema–rather frustratingly–is fantastic. Watching her and Rockwell together, the verbal sparing, the rapid-fire back and forths, it’s wonderful. Her role ought to be impossible, because it’s so absurd, but she really makes it work. The other great performance is Tom Wilkinson. He and Rockwell as father and son is great to watch, because it’s probably Rockwell’s talent at something besides being charming in an odd way comes through. The only disappointing performance–Allison Janney is fine but nothing spectacular–is Brenda Blethyn. O’Connor plays an American and she’s great, but Blethyn seems like she’s uncomfortable doing it (odd, Piccadilly Jim‘s a British with Americans playing Americans and British playing Americans and whatever, never mind). She’s not having any fun. It might be the constraints of the character, but it’s Brenda Blethyn. She’s usually outstanding.
I wasn’t expecting much from Piccadilly Jim because it never got the U.S. release and, in an interview at the time, Rockwell didn’t seem very excited about it. But it really reminded me, movies can be fun and intelligent and good without necessarily being great. The sad thing, of course, is in the 1990s, Piccadilly Jim was closer to the norm than not.
Directed by John McCay; screenplay by Julian Fellowes, from the novel by P.G. Wodehouse; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by David Freeman; music by Adrian Johnston; production designer, Amanda McArthur; produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Andrew Hauptman; released by United International Pictures.
Starring Sam Rockwell (Jim Crocker), Frances O’Connor (Ann Chester), Tom Wilkinson (Bingley Crocker), Brenda Blethyn (Nesta Pett), Allison Janney (Eugenia Crocker), Austin Pendleton (Peter Pett), Hugh Bonneville (Lord Wisbeach), Tom Hollander (Willie Partridge), Geoffrey Palmer (Bayliss), Rupert Simonian (Ogden Ford) and Kevin Eldon (Wizzy).