Absolutely Anything has been on comedy fans’ radars for a long time. Terry Jones’ first directorial effort since 1996’s The Wind In The Willows is touted as a zany sci-fi comedy with shades of Douglas Adams and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with a cast that includes Jones’ fellow Pythons, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Michael Palin, alongside other comedy stars like Simon Pegg, Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley and Robin Williams.
Alas, the material doesn’t live up to the star calibre, nor the literally limitless potential suggested by the title. Loosely based on H.G. Wells’ fantastical comedy short story The Man Who Could Work Miracles, the film begins when a group of power-crazed aliens (voiced by the Pythons) discover a probe with information on Earth’s culture and decide to put the planet to the test.
They will grant absolute power to a randomly selected human for 10 days, to examine whether Earth’s dominant species is capable of good rather than evil, with designs on destroying it if not. Their target is English teacher and aspiring writer Neil Clarke, (Simon Pegg) who doesn’t really want much more than to get rid of his more unruly students and impress his downstairs neighbour Catherine (Kate Beckinsale.) When given the power to make anything he can think of happen with just a wave of his hand, hilarity ensues. Sort of.
The script (co-written by Jones and Gavin Scott) has been kicking around in development for 20 years and while it does feel dated, the largest problem is a distinct lack of imagination – those fan complaints about Hal Jordan only summoning racecars and giant fists in the Green Lantern movie may be echoed here, as the comedic side of things extends only as far as hacky ‘be careful what you wish for’ skits.
The gag of Neil’s pedantic monkey paw is repeated ad nauseum. There are a couple of good ones that aren’t ruined in the trailer, (although “Let everyone who died be alive again” raises a chuckle or two in context) but there’s a frustrating lack of escalation, except for one involving Sanjeev Bhaskar as a lovesick mate of Neil’s who requests that his indifferent PE teacher crush worships the ground before him. The sci-fi stakes aren’t up to much either, with the early revelation that Neil can undo any vast number of mistakes in one go.
Syntactic boo-boos aside, the film does get a few chucklesome moments from the premise. A lot of them come from Neil’s dog Dennis, (played by Mojo and voiced by Robin Williams) whose obsession with biscuits and shagging makes him a less than ideal sounding board when his master gives him rational thought and the ability to speak English. It’s gratifying to find that Williams’ final performance is imbued with all of his typical scene-stealing panache, using only his voice, and his character is undoubtedly the highlight.
However, it doesn’t do the film any other favours to say that he’s the most well-rounded character in the film. Pegg slips easily back into his cinematic beta male persona after deeper takes on the same in The World’s End and this year’s Man Up, and the film describes him as ‘likeable’ and ‘ordinary’ so many times that it’s unreasonable to expect him to stretch himself.
The rest of the cast is largely squandered too – Beckinsale is prominent and under-served as a romantic foil, but Joanna Lumley is criminally wasted in a go-nowhere sub-plot at Catherine’s workplace. Eddie Izzard raises some chuckles as a taciturn headmaster who is cursed with niceness, but doesn’t really show up enough. Plus, while Rob Riggle is no stranger to elevating far worse comedies than this one, he’s working with the same material as everyone else, so there’s not a lot he can do.
Perhaps you could give the film a bit of leeway on account of its budget – it’s not a massive Hollywood production, but neither is it a super low-budget labour of love. Despite the tantalising promise of James Acheson (who counts Man Of Steel and a 1970s spell on Doctor Who on his CV) as production designer, there are far more ropey computer-generated effects in the film than the kind of sturdy practical effects that are typical of this range of British science fiction and, indeed, of the Pythons’ collective filmography.
Then again, the film itself is quite TARDIS-like – it’s 86 minutes long, but manages to feel much longer while you’re watching it, thanks to some flat direction and the script’s repeated grasping at the most obvious punchlines to hand. It’s tempting to suggest that this might have fared better as an animated movie, where the budgetary limits are different to those of live-action sci-fi, but the lack of imagination sadly suggests otherwise.
On a side-note, it feels like someone somewhere must have waved their hand to grant this a 12A certificate. By our count, there were around nine F-bombs, (mostly used in a sexual context) plus a couple of off-hand racial slurs. The fact that this didn’t get a 15 is even more baffling in the week after the BBFC slapped The Diary Of A Teenage Girl with an 18 certificate for its considered portrayal of a sexual awakening, making it legally unsuitable for its target audience to see.
Ironically, it’s difficult to tell who Absolutely Anything is suitable for – like this week’s bigger alien movie, Pixels, it’s often a bit too juvenile for most older viewers to enjoy and a lot of its dated sense of humour will go over the heads of under-12s who might get brought along by mistake. It’s far from irredeemable, but there’s little reason to catch it in cinemas, other than a couple of funny skits and a swansong performance from Robin Williams.
Absolutely Anything is in UK cinemas now.
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