Festival (18)

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The Independent Culture

The scene is Edinburgh at festival time, a honeypot of opportunity around which an ensemble of dogged and desperate characters congregate. A young hopeful arrives with her one-woman show about Dorothy Wordsworth; a Catholic cleric stages his own earnest playlet about child abuse in the church; a troupe of fey Canadian performance artists rent out a posh town house and trash it.

The main focus shifts between a radio journalist (Daniela Nardini) who's on the jury for a comedy award (the Perrier, though never named) and a bibulous Irish stand-up (Chris O'Dowd) who's out to seduce her, possibly because he wants her vote. Known to both of them is a strikingly obnoxious celebrity comedian (Stephen Mangan), who looks like Jerry Seinfeld but is surely modelled on a Brit. A slave to lechery and acute self-regard, he's poised for a big break in Hollywood but remains furiously competitive with anyone who might have a modicum of talent and meanwhile treats his PR as little better than a serf.

You can instantly detect something curdled about the tone from the soundtrack, when the skirling pipes meant to invoke Caledonian splendour start to blare like a siren: alarums within! The petty rivalries and resentments of Festival types bubble away like a witch's cauldron, and Griffin's careful stirring elicits a sulphurous whiff of misanthropy that most British comedy prefers to ignore. Film comedy, that is.

TV comedy, where Griffin made her mark with The Book Group, has come close to it with The Office, and you may have some fun spotting at least three actors from the latter doing bit-parts here.

It's not just the booze-fuelled profanity, either; an abrasive sexual candour, including hand-jobs, cunnilingus and something nasty up the back passage, has striven honourably for the film's 18 certificate. But as a narrative it doesn't really achieve the desired Altmanesque flow, and several of the minor plotlines feel very hit-and-miss.

But a big hand, please, for Griffin and her team for their Altmanesque ambition, and for those poison darts that fly straight and true. How I felt for the two comedians patronised into silence by the perky awards juror, who then leaves them with a sickening valediction. "Stay funny!"