What do you do when your father is the life of the party and you're not? If you're Blake Morrison, the charm-free narrator of When Did You Last See Your Father?, you resent him long and bitterly.
This Oedipal struggle underscores a new English film from Anand Tucker. The result, however, is that the fine actor Colin Firth, who plays the grown son of a dotty, narcissistic and compelling country physician, gets upstaged time and again by the actor playing his father, Jim Broadbent—a brilliant ham playing a brilliant ham. The rules of the relationship are established early, in a flashback to Blake's 1950s childhood, when his father, Arthur, impatient to get his family to an auto race, skirts a traffic jam by shamelessly waving his stethoscope. At the racetrack, he bluffs his way in despite lacking a ticket. And so it goes with Arthur, at this juncture and in later periods of this film that hopscotches between the '50s, '60s and the late '80s. Throughout, Blake's father is shameless, pigheaded, hedonistic, reckless, belittling and bibulous; he is also charming, gentle, brilliant and essentially harmless.
But, on the day of the auto race, young Blake is about 5 years old, and he can only gape in awe at his amazing dad. It's a different story when we meet Blake as a teenager in the early 1960s, listening to R&B, reading Dostoevsky and masturbating to thoughts of his family's new Scottish au pair; he's a needy, awkward kid who needs a father who's more like Benjamin Spock than Hunter S. Thompson. Blake, by his adolescence, has also figured out that his father sleeps with women who are not his wife, Kim (Juliet Stevenson), also a physician.
Based on a memoir by Blake Morrison, the film's narrative is framed by the last days of Arthur and the death vigil kept by Blake, his mother and his sister. Witnessing the death of a dying parent is something most of us will have to do at least once and, unsurprisingly, Blake is anxious to settle accounts with his father, whom he regards with a mixture of exasperation, condescension and hatred. He also wants to learn more about possible consequences of his father's apparent extramarital adventures—and the hurt his father seems to have inflicted upon Blake's mother.
As universal as Blake's experience is, there are at least two fatal problems with this film's presentation of it. The first is technical: Director Tucker overdecorates his frame with pretentious shots of characters in mirrors, and shots of characters obscured by objects in the foreground. Even worse is the decision to ladle on viscous helpings of Barrington Pheloung's saccharine score—even in the quietest, more private interludes (did the orchestra come in on cue when you last visited a hospital sickbed?).
The second problem is more fundamental to the material: No matter how justified is Blake's need for a less flamboyant father, he can't avoid coming off as a stick-in-the-mud in such scenes as a camping trip that takes a Laurel and Hardy turn. Although the adult Blake begins to learn how others—including ex-lovers—cared for his father despite his flaws, some of us will spend the film wanting to say to him: "Stop whining. Not only is your dad cool, he's way cooler than you." —David Fellerath
When Did You Last See Your Father? opens Friday in select theaters.
Why does Outsourced satisfy, when so many recent romcoms are so cringe worthy? The answer is simple: There must be sympathetic characters. In 27 Dresses, James Marsden betrays Katharine Heigl when he exploits their friendship to further his career—and she forgives him! (Sorry, that is a deal breaker.) In Made of Honor, Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan play such shallow narcissists (were they ever on an episode of Seinfeld?) that it is impossible to invest in their happiness. In these films, clever banter has been replaced by arguments and bitching.
Big names can't disguise a lousy screenplay, but sometimes unknown actors and a good script click. A good example is the delightful Outsourced, a film festival favorite shot in India and Seattle that is the year's best romantic comedy by far. The plot is certainly topical: A manufacturer of "kitsch for rednecks" outsources catalog sales to an Indian call center, and sends Todd (Josh Hamilton), the American supervisor, abroad to train his replacement. Todd experiences the expected culture shock, but he also develops an unexpected friendship with Purohit, his successor (charmingly played by Asif Basra).
When we first see Hamilton (still waiting for a big break, years after his 1991 After School Special Emmy), his cubicle nerd is so blandly unremarkable, we wonder if we will care about him. Called "Mr. Toad" in India, Todd's gentle nature wins over the audience as he expresses confusion and curiosity about his uneasy cultural and economic situation. As Todd decides to embrace his experience, the image of Kali, goddess of destruction, adorning his room in a guesthouse, is no longer terrifying. Kali will end one cycle of existence, so a new one can begin.
The tentative friendship between Todd and Ayesha Dharker's Asha conveys genuine emotion. (Dharker, too, waits for stardom, a veteran of a Bombay Dreams bad girl role on Broadway, and a bit on Dr. Who.) When Asha reaches across the conservative boundaries of her culture, the gesture has meaning and consequences.
As an added bonus, Outsourced is a romantic comedy that is actually funny—but not in the unfunny potty gags and sexual humiliation we associate with Steve Carell and Mike Myers. Instead, writer-director John Jeffcoat must write from bemused experience, as he shows Todd's initial alarm at chaos and poverty dissolving as he understands the vibrant social connectedness that makes his American wealth, computer solitaire games and estrangement from his parents seem meaningless compared to India's occasionally baffling but enfolding embrace. —Laura Boyes
Outsourced opens Friday at Galaxy Cinema.