Film: Oh my God, they overkilled Kenny

ALSO SHOWING South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (15) Trey Parker; 81 mins Never Been Kissed (12) Raja Gosnell; 107 mins Life (15) Ted Demme; 109 mins Darkness Falls (15) Gerry Lively; 91 mins

Before South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut there was South Park the television series, the most-watched programme on American cable, the Stones to The Simpsons' Beatles and the only cartoon to have a TV-M (mature audiences only) rating. Both series and film - the work of American animators Matt Stone and Trey Parker - centre on four blob-eyed eight- years-olds called Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny who are growing up in a Colorado mountain town. A normal day might include talking to aliens while apparently suffering from Tourette's syndrome.

The film is rude and doltish and - sometimes - incredibly funny. In it, the boys infiltrate an adults-only movie and emerge with a new, even fouler vocabulary, and a burning desire to locate the clitoris. We are taken to Hell - where Satan is having a gay affair with Saddam Hussein (sitting late into the night reading Saddam is from Mars, Satan is from Venus) - and back to Colorado, where the grown-ups are waging war on Canada and implanting chips into their children's heads, punishing them for swearing with an electric shock.

South Park's animation is wilfully low-tech, which dictates our first response to it: that the lunatics have taken over the asylum, that children might have drawn it themselves. Creators of scatological entertainment always argue that children delight in their work, as though this automatically confers a super-legitimacy upon it. And in the past decade or so, transgressive humour has moved wholeheartedly towards the cartoon, the most traditional of childish forms. Parker and Stone, like anyone who's any good, obey the law that the talent will go where the energy is.

But the idea that these utterly sardonic film-makers are forming some kind of subversive alliance with children is nonsense, because children's humour is actually irony-free. Kids won't get half the gags in South Park, but they might like all the farting. And anyway, no child under 15 in this country is supposed to see the film in the first place.

It would be nice to applaud South Park's punky no-budget quiddity, but it's worth pointing out that Parker and Stone have hardly discovered the New Joke. For some time now, the leading edge of comedy has been the Lenny Bruce / Eddie Izzard free-form stand-up riff: no other area can boast such mobility, such freedom. Low-cost animation is the only possible way the visual media can match this conceptual fleetfootedness. The subversion of star and studio systems, the refreshing anonymity of animators and the absence of canned laughter are merely happy by-products.

In Never Been Kissed, Drew Barrymore stars as Josie Geller, a 25- year-old copy editor at a Chicago newspaper. She is plump and bright and gauche. Her boss sends her to act as an undercover reporter at a local high school, hoping she will dish the dirt on teacher-student flirtation. So she enrols as a final-year student and proceeds to win hearts, including that of her English teacher, a young man so attractive that the film's lone mystery is why the entire school isn't insisting on extra lessons. The experience affords Josie the opportunity to correct her past. Aged 17 she was nicknamed "Josie Grossie" and spent her real years at high school fiddling with her brace.

The whole thing has nowhere near the chutzpah of the Eighties films it apes - high-school films such as Pretty in Pink. But Barrymore does give Never Been Kissed a swing - she's a girl who is capable of looking spare and vitamin-free one minute and then like Marilyn about to launch into "I'm Through With Love" the next. Like the young Monroe, Barrymore has that lovely attitude of not being indignant that eyes are crawling over her, half-amused, half-amazed - feeding. With her tinny blonde hair, her damaged grace, she is like cheap blossom, always just seconds from seeming naked, her flesh somehow visible even through thick jumpers.

Life stars Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence as men wrongly convicted of murder, seeing out their sentence on a Mississippi prison farm. Sixty years pass, friends come and go, escapes are attempted and foiled. The two sometimes feel close, sometimes separate, and eventually come to act as kind of interpreters to one another. Murphy does old incredibly well, his trademark patter and timing slowing until it seems to be shivering out of him. Director Ted Demme presents us with a mixture of broad comedy and ponderousness, and if at times the film is naively structured, it has nevertheless a sincere origin, a suggested toughness.

Darkness Falls has been sitting on a shelf for ages, gathering embarrassed dust. It is awful. It's set on the Isle of Man, and has an obnoxious couple (Tim Dutton, Sherilyn Fenn) being held at gunpoint in their posh house by an acquaintance (Ray Winstone). This film brought horribly to mind nights spent as a theatre critic on the naff end of the London fringe. Such plays were always about people locked in basements, and the director would linger in the pub downstairs afterwards hoping to catch your eye. In the same way, Darkness Falls has a soft-ass idea of glamour and danger and meaning - feeling nothing, delineating nothing and shouting its head off. You just know that Fenn's Campari bottle is filled with Ribena.

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