Lazy Britcom for the bowls revivalists. Now with added fat man.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 06 Sep 2003 by Scott Morris
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Writer of the current comparatively huge (by our own meagre standards) British film Calendar Girls Tim Firth follows it up swiftly with a rather less glorious comedy that won't be wowing audiences anywhere, although there's a few gags that stop it from being a total write off. Just.

Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye, still best known for his Dennis Pennis character) is a working class cheeky Torquay chappy working for his surprisingly named uncle Mutley (Bernard Cribbins, who may or may not want a medal) as a very bad painter and decorator. He also works alongside his friend Johnny Vegas. Well, the character's name is Trevor, but as Vegas only ever plays himself in anything he might as well go by his own name. Cliff has acquired a love of the gentlemanly game of bowls from his uncle, and has developed into a terrifyingly good player capable of all manner of fancy shots and tricks.

He remains untested though, because of his moral stance not to join the elitist and hoighty-toity local bowls club. This club is run under the careful auspices of Ray Speight (James Cromwell), 24 time regional champion and editor of the bowls rule book. Cliff reconsiders his vows not to enter the club on realising that the only way to take a shot at the current dominators of the world bowls scene, the Doohan Brothers of Oz, is to represent England on an International level. The only way to represent England is to win his regional championships. The only way to win the regional championships is to enter the clubhouse and take on all comers, eventually leading to a Cliff vs. Ray final. Cliff wins handily, but his declaration on his scorecard that 'Ray Speight is a tosser' leads to him being stripped of the title and his hopes, banned for a ludicrous 15 years.

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This saga causes some stir in the local media, stirring the interest of sporting talent agent Rick Schwartz (Vince Vaughn), a svengali who sets about recreating Cliff as the Bad Boy of Bowls. The media goes ape over him, leading to lucrative merchandising deals and even the reappearance of bowls of the BBC as part of an unsanctioned match. Pressure grows on the national bowls committee to overturn the ban and allow Cliff a shot at the Doohans. As is always the way, fame starts going to Cliff's head, causing strains and eventually breaks in his relationships with Trevor, Mutley and his girlfriend Kerry (Alice Evans), who happens to also be Ray's daughter. By far the weakest section of the movie, these relationships are muddily defined in a mire of stereotypes and clich?. Crucially it's not very funny. Or funny at all, come to think of it.

Eventually Cliff works out that he's being an muppet and that in part it's the machinations of Rick that's responsible, so he fires him and sets about mending fences. The greatest challenge comes as part of Rick's final action; a match against the Doohans, partnered with the one man who had set out to destroy him - Ray Speight.

It all strictly follows type and for the most part is pretty poor, it's main problem unfortunately being the entire second half. The leads spend nearly all of their time navel gazing leaving only asides for adjunct characters to provide any laughs and in a comedy film that's pretty much unforgivable. The first half largely moves along at a decent pace and focus on the antics of Cliff and his rise to fame, some of which are pretty inspired. His entrance at the regional finals complete with a brass band playing the Rocky theme probably stands out as the film's best moment. Enjoyable as the scene is, that's not a particularly good sign.

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Firth's script doesn't show any hints of ingenuity at all, and there's a distinctly familiar feeling to everything that's on screen. It's plot devices and contrivances are jaded and boring which wouldn't be so much of a problem if it was a consistently hilarious film. It isn't. The first forty five odd minutes are relatively diverting but the second half drags like Lily Savage. Bright spots are provided by Johnny Vegas who for some reason makes everything funnier by his presence, for me anyway. He does nothing new so if you haven't been convinced of the portly man's charms by now he's unlikely to convert you here. Kaye's accent is reasonably accurate but nonetheless grating and no other character is really given anything substantive to do.

There's a health amount of focus on the budding romance, break-up and rekindling of Cliff and Kerry's relationship which is neither funny nor well written. There's no wit to the dialogue and no real chemistry between the pair, and as a showcase for the acting rather than comedic talents of Kaye it's not going to impress too many people. It's unfortunate that this makes up the bulk of the films second act as the pairings of Kaye / Vaughn, Kaye / Vegas, Kaye / Cribbins, Kaye / Cromwell and Kaye / anyone else have more spark to them, but are hugely underused.

Director Mel Smith does a largely unremarkable job throughout, the only remarks sadly being at some rather strange editing decisions. Cliff spends some time retrieving his previously discarded set of lucky bowls mid-match and returns to kick some Australian arse, with the Ozzies golden bowls being knocked apart by the English teams blue spheres. It's a shame that the just retrieved bowls were black, which is an unforgivable and glaring error given that it makes the last scene either pointless or in the wrong order.

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As with most British comedies for natives of this fair isle it affords a wonderful opportunity to spot a bunch of familiar TV faces on the big screen, which is always a novelty. Decent support for Kaye is provided by Cribbins, Imelda Staunton and even ex-Neighbours star Mark Little as one of the mumbling Doohan brothers, providing one of the finales few laughs. The rest are provided by the bowls commentary team of ex-Saturday Night Armistice and The Day Today star David Schneider (also spotted in 28 Days Later, alongside co-commentator Angus 'Statto' Louchran of Fantasy Football League infamy. They provide a nice piss-take of the current overanalysis trend started by Sky Sports with multiple computer overlays and 'Bowl-O-Meter's and a few bizarre non-sequiturs such as '..that of course was before there was an actual half-time and it was merely half way through the match.'

None of the above is enough to save it as a comedy and there's certainly nothing here to recommend it as a serious drama, leaving it in an unfortunate half-way house that isn't worth the effort to travel to. The first half or so showed promise of being average at least, but ultimately it doesn't reach that high.

Coming up with a mark for Blackball is easy. I laughed more than zero times, so it's better than Sweet Home Alabama. I did not have the urge to mercilessly slaughter everyone involved in the production of it, so it's a notch above American Pie - The Wedding. This leaves it firmly on the 2 TM mark, which is perhaps generous but my logic is infallible.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.

Mel Smith
Cast list:
Paul Kaye (Cliff Starkey)
Bernard Cribbins (Mutley)
James Cromwell (Ray Speight)
Alice Evans (Kerry Speight)
Mark Little (Mark Doohan)
Imelda Staunton (Bridget)
Vince Vaughn (Rick Schwartz)
Johnny Vegas (Trevor)