Malcolm has strange plotting. The film runs just ninety minutes—like you don’t really believe that official ninety minute runtime and it doesn’t feel like they’re rounding up from eighty-nine either. The film’s light and it seems to be coming from the drama. There really isn’t any. There’s charm instead. Almost cuteness.
The title Malcolm is Colin Friels, a thirty-ish Autistic man (though the film never describes his diagnosis or even if anyone understands he’s got one—1986 after all) who lives alone since his mother’s died. He’s a mechanical genius with a fascination about Melbourne’s trams. He even works for the trams for a while… but off-screen. The movie opens with him getting fired for building his own one-person tram. Strapped for cash, he has to bring in a lodger. He takes the first one who comes to see the room–John Hargreaves.
At this point, Malcolm seems like it’s going to be about kindly neighborhood shop owner Beverley Phillips getting Friels to socially develop thanks to Hargreaves. It seems like it for about three minutes, which is a long time in Malcolm. But then Hargreaves brings home girlfriend Lindy Davies and she stays. Like a day after Hargreaves comes in. It isn’t clear why Hargreaves and Davies weren’t just looking for a place together. Character motivations are not writer (and cinematographer) David Parker’s strong suit. Neither is the cinematography, just to get it out of the way. Malcolm has very flat cinematography. The film’s able to get through the flat lighting and the script’s absence of characters’ ground situations because of director Tass. She’s okay with composition, but she’s great at directing her actors. Friels, Davies, and Hargreaves all turn in these fantastic performances and, along with the mood (which is the script, is the direction), make Malcolm work. Even though both Friels and Davies kind of get the story focus shaft. It instead concentrates on Hargreaves, which doesn’t make any sense because the whole point of his life being different than before is specifically because of what Friels and Davies are now doing in it.
Hargreaves is really good. He gives the best performance in the film, which he shouldn’t, but he isn’t able to transcend the script. The part isn’t good enough. The closest the movie gets to dramatics often involves Hargreaves saying something shitty about Friels behind his back and Davies giving him hell for it, leading to offscreen bonding between Hargreaves and Friels. Eventually Hargreaves has some personal growth and isn’t a dick to Friels anymore but we sure don’t get to see it. There’s the potential for character development, then there’s a jump ahead past it. Multiple times. Parker and Tass are too obvious in what they’re not addressing. They draw attention to what they’re not doing and then still manage to be too deliberate in how they showcase the gadgetry.
After Davies moves in, Friels starts making different gadgets and machines to impress Hargreaves because apparently Friels thinks he’s cool. Or something. We never find out because whenever anyone wants to have a serious talk with Friels, they do it offscreen so Parker doesn’t have to write the dialogue. After the first act, Friels basically becomes a (necessary) third wheel in Davies and Hargreaves’s story, which is mostly from Davies’s perspective because Hargreaves doesn’t do anything interesting on his own. Not even when he does things on his own; the movie can’t make them seem interesting.
Hargreaves has a scummy bar friend—an astonishingly third-billed Chris Haywood, who gets about four minutes on screen and never a close-up. Haywood’s just around for when Hargreaves needs to do something away from Friels and Davies. Until Hargreaves reaches the point he realizes he’s got to grow and then he just runs away to different areas of the house.
Another success of Tass’s direction is the lack of claustrophobia, even when there ought to be.
Whenever Friels shows Hargreaves a new gadget, it’s an action set piece. They’re really cool sequences, often involving remote controlled cars or objects. Editor Ken Sallows always cuts the action well. They’re the film’s pay-off moments and they work.
But they really shouldn’t be the film’s pay-off moments. They supersede the characters. For the finale the actors don’t even get to participate in the big action sequence.
It’s a great sequence though and when the actors do come back, they’re able to make up for the lost time goodwill-wise.
Malcolm doesn’t succeed in spite of itself, it just doesn’t aim high enough. It also adjusts its aim lower as the film goes on. Its potential deflates as it goes.
But it’s really cute, really charming, often rather funny. Excellent performances from Hargreaves, Friels, and Davies. Nice score from Simon Jeffres.
Just wish the script were more interested in the characters.