Ebony and Irony
(Huge, Ben Miller, UK, 2010, 81 mins)
[Note: This review reveals the film’s ending]
Comedian Ben Miller’s first foray into filmmaking will revive some old jokes about the maladies afflicting British cinema. There’s the lack of cinematic ambition; handing a fist full of hard earned sheckles to a disinterested multiplex employee so you can watch a unreconstructed piece of television. There’s that slightly grungy, grainy look – a low budget calling card. Why, you ask, can’t British directors light their movies to add a little gloss? Bring us sunshine! In Miller’s case, there’s also debutant creep; poor framing which top slices character’s heads. For God’s sake Ben, were you looking at the monitor or not?
Miller’s script, written with Jez Butterworth and Simon Godley, and adapted from their 1993 play of the same name, explores the miserable back end of stand up comedy. Trevor Griffith’s Comedians, which might be the Eddie Waters to its Gethin Price, had a bolder hook, in exploring why comedy was important, what it meant to those whose unenviable job it is to perform it, and the relationship between those who’d prostitute themselves for giggles and that terrifying amorphous mass known as the audience. Huge is more concerned with the path to success, rather than what’s funny and what isn’t. That much is certain from the moment it becomes apparent that Hawaiian shirt wearing duo Warren and Clarke (Johnny Harris and Noel Clarke) are a pair of Rupert Pupkins.
The question of whether the double act, one of whom has the bald head and gait of a prison lifer (Imagine that Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket lost weight and decided to become a stand up) and the other, a full afro and NHS glasses, are as funny as they imagine themselves to be, is the film’s great tease. Miller reduces the duo’s on screen performances to a series of embarrassments (being eliminated during a gong show after just 2.3 seconds) and their first minute on stage.
The script mines chortles from the suggestion that their act may be anachronistically twee in the post-alternative age; Warren’s role models being Morecambe and Wise and Bruce Forsythe, rather than the likes of Alexi Sayle, with whom he shares a greater physical likeness. The doublethink that hampers Warren’s progress – simultaneously looking to comedy’s past for inspiration while turning up on stage and proclaiming “I’m the future”, raises a smile, as does the more affable Clarke’s initial reluctance to pursue the dream, setting up a amusing third reel in which a nodule of success has seen him morph into a prima donna who’s nevertheless betrayed his comedic aspirations for the guaranteed exposure of a chicken nugget commercial.
Having spent the running time suggesting the pair may be a busted flush, the film tacks on a happy ending with post credit snaps from the “Warren and Clarke museum”, suggesting they’ve succeeded in becoming the nation’s next Eric and Ernie. This might be a joke, but it’s a little like dubbing a laughter track over a mirthless sitcom. There’s nothing to connect the duo we’ve seen with the adulation they’ve attained. Huge is, for a film about comedy, conspicuously free of either diegetic or non-diegetic wit.
Miller doesn’t have much to say about stand up, other than it’s arduous, for the most part thankless and it’s hard to rise to the top; none of which will strike an audience as revelatory. There’s plenty to be said about the British stand up scene, not least why thousands of people would expose themselves to ridicule, embarrassment and hundreds of hours on stage for the opportunity to waste their efforts trading glib quips on comedy panel shows, but Huge only gets close to an answer just the once, with a desolate Warren telling his partner, “my worst fear is that people are laughing at me”. It’s that need to be popular and invert social disadvantages, you realise, that propels the majority on; adoring laughter being the crutch for many a broken ego. It’s the film’s one genuinely poignant scene and its strongest insight.
The strongest undercurrent to Huge is its one gold plated irony, namely that the duo’s largely fruitless hunt for inspiration to inform their act runs in parallel with a series of potentially hilarious situations that would give them plenty to talk about, if only that had the wit to see it. The problem for both the performers and the audience is that neither enjoys these misadventures as much as they could.
Billed as a comedy drama, there’s too little of the former while the latter is underpowered, suggesting the intimacy of the theatre stage with it’s live audience as a proxy for Warren and Clarke’s, may have better suited the material. On screen, the lack of mirth coupled with the self-conscious kook employed in characterisation, make it hard to care whether they succeed or not and difficult to know if they’d deserve it if they did.