Lucky Break (12),<BR></BR> Heartbreakers (15),<BR></BR> Josie and the Pussycats (PG),<BR></BR> Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (PG)

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The Independent Culture

That it has taken the director Peter Cattaneo four years to follow up his all-conquering debut, The Full Monty, is surely an encouraging sign: only do an encore when you're good and ready. If the prison comedy Lucky Break won't storm the box office in quite the way his first film did, it reveals none the less the kind of solid structure and expert playing that only come of careful preparation.

James Nesbitt plays Jimmy, a likely lad whose cack-handed attempts at armed robbery have landed him and his pal Rudy (Lennie James) on a five-year stretch. Prison not being much to either's liking, they waste little time in devising a a way out, and their opportunity emerges in the shape of a musical about the life of Nelson, penned by the nick's governor (Christopher Plummer). Jimmy and Rudy will front the show and, in time-honoured movie tradition, will make their escape during the curtain-call, aided and abetted by a dithering toff (Bill Nighy, in brilliant form) and a young arsonist (Raymond Waring), whose sudden manic burst of laughter at the word "matches" is the film's out-of-the-blue highlight.

Ronan Bennett's screenplay spikes the comedy with a dose of drama and a pinch of romance. The subplot of the sadistic screw and Cliff, a gentle-souled prisoner he bullies, might have looked tired were it not for the fact that the latter is played by Timothy Spall. The visiting-hour scene in which Cliff, lank-haired and spaniel-eyed, realises that his girlfriend and kid are drifting away from him achieves a level of pathos that's all down to Spall's genius.

The film thrives on such supporting roles. I don't recall seeing Julian Barratt before, but his understated performance as the earnest drama teacher will make me watch out for him now. As Annabel, the prison support officer who captures Jimmy's heart, Olivia Williams at last has a role other than Rushmore we can praise. As for Peter Cattaneo, he has held his nerve and looked to the details; even if this plucky-underdog stuff isn't new, it still makes most British screen comedy look like the feeble, jerry-built thing it is.

Was I suffering sense-of-humour failure during Heartbreakers, or is this tale of a mother-and-daughter con team actually the most charmless comedy of the year? They laughed like hyenas in the row behind, but the broadness of Sigourney Weaver's faux-Russian accent, and the unpleasantness of Jennifer Love Hewitt's snitty minx made me slump in my seat.

The idea is that they're a brilliant pair of scammers who specialise in fleecing rich, gullible bachelors, only they've no sense of style. They don't want to pay for anything – petrol, drinks, you name it – and we're meant to like these cheap chisellers? Gene Hackman enjoys himself as a raddled billionaire about to keel over from lung failure, and Ray Liotta, as Weaver's last stooge, has a couple of good scenes, but for most of the time, it's as funny as pulling teeth.

Scarcely more engaging is Josie and the Pussycats, a comedy about the music business and the transience of fame. Having dispatched his last teen pop outfit to oblivion, a record-company Mephistopheles (Alan Cumming) decides to make Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook) and her Pussycats (Rosario Dawson, Tara Reid) the next big thing, though his promotion turns out to be a front: he and his witchy boss (Parker Posey) aim to brainwash the youth of America by smuggling subliminal messages into the Pussycats' music. It could have been frothy fun, but the action is so frantic and uneven that nothing really hangs together. Writers Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont take satiric pot-shots not just at trend-mania but the cynicism of product-placement, while failing to notice that the film becomes exactly the sort of ad billboard it seeks to disdain.

You know the Eighties revival has gone too far when a studio can trundle out junk like Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. Looking as leathery as the reptiles he wrestles, Paul Hogan returns as the eponymous croc-hunter, this time spreading some of that outback wit (ahem) and wisdom among the denizens of Hollywood. The film works in short, jerky sequences, most of them lame variations on fish-out-of-water incongruity that flap around and then die – worse, it has the nerve to be reactionary to boot. Dundee, for all his affability, is a sexist berk, snatching a cigar from a woman at a party just because he doesn't enjoy the sight. I wish he'd tried that one on Lara Croft.

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