The longest Newfie joke

THE ADVENTURE OF FAUSTUS BIDGOOD Directed by Andy Jones and Michael Jones

LAWRENCE O'TOOLE September 29 1986

The longest Newfie joke

THE ADVENTURE OF FAUSTUS BIDGOOD Directed by Andy Jones and Michael Jones

LAWRENCE O'TOOLE September 29 1986

The longest Newfie joke

THE ADVENTURE OF FAUSTUS BIDGOOD Directed by Andy Jones and Michael Jones

The first hour of The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood, a fantasysatire from Newfoundland, includes enough moments of hilarity to leave audiences aching from laughter. Regrettably, the second half contains sections of profound tedium. But the movie’s outlandish beginning features so much reckless bravado that it puts most Canadian movies made in recent years to abject shame. Some of the film’s producers and cast are former members of CODCO, the Newfoundland revue troupe that has delighted Canadian audiences since the mid-1970s with tours and television appearances. The group made Faustus Bidgood over a 10-year period for about $100,000—a budget not much larger than the combined seasonal unemployment benefits for a Newfoundland fishing outport. The result is a brilliant idea gone wildly out of control.

The plot centres on Faustus (Andy Jones), a mild-mannered civil servant in the provincial government’s education department, who wears a plaid sports jacket and lime-green trousers. Once an inmate of the island’s main psychiatric hospital, locally known as “The Mental,” Faustus daydreams of becoming the head of a Newfoundland revolutionary government intent on separating from the rest of Canada. But the real government for which Faustus toils is almost as ridiculous as his fantasy: to generate publicity, Premier Jonathan Moon (Nelson Porter) occasionally goes into hiding, leaving a clue about where he is. Voters send in their guesses to a local TV show in the hope of winning various prizes, such as irons and toasters. The fictional premier’s gambit seems to be a sly parody of Newfoundland’s elusive former premier Frank Moores.

The film’s satire moves from mischief into outrageousness with its portrait of Eddie Peddle (Robert Joy), a charismatic but insufferably genial politician. Eddie’s main skill is his flair for wringing reliable laughs at political gatherings from one silly Newfie joke. Meanwhile, he secretly murders little girls with poisoned bubble gum. Faustus’s immediate superior is Fred Bonia-Coombs (Brian Downey),

the head of the education department. A psychotic and a fascist, he makes Faustus do his bidding by threatening to send him back to “The Mental.” The film cuts between scenes of utter mayhem in the educational department, Faustus’s hallucinations about political power and his talks with a worried guardian angel (Greg Malone).

Eventually, a van with “The Mental” painted on its side carries Faustus away. The remaining subplots, including several that fade soon after their introduction, converge shakily at a charity performance by members of the government. By then, it is clear that the film has tried to accomplish far too much. And it is laced with local references that will mystify strangers to Newfoundland. When Heady Nolan (Mary Walsh), the object of Faustus’s affections, returns to the office boasting about a spectacularly dirty weekend she has just enjoyed in Gander, only those familiar with island folklore will get the joke: the most exciting thing anyone can do in Gander is get on a plane and leave.

But true wit, especially the scathing kind of Faustus Bidgood, can cross cultures. Recalling his school days in a visual reverie, Faustus watches as a parade of nuns and frustrated lay teachers beat and practically deafen their frightened charges into submission. In another fantasy, about life as the island’s revolutionary ruler, Faustus attends the world première of his own screen biography. That rollicking, sepia-toned chronicle features a family elder entertaining the local women by performing a dangerous dance in a kilt.

Despite its numerous flaws, Faustus Bidgood conveys the islanders’ character with superb aplomb. Newfoundlanders, a people who live with both hardship and absurdity, often choose to laugh at their circumstances. The CODCO veterans in the cast display a marvellously tart, revue-style zest and rhythm. The acting, except for Andy Jones as Faustus, is crudely cut. With his bespectacled moon face, Jones’s Faustus is a timid hero, almost impervious to reality. Yet Jones convincingly portrays him as no crazier than the world he inhabits.

There is a cruel and ultimately saddening edge to the humor of Faustus Bidgood. But somewhere over the decade that was required to make it, the moviemakers lost track of what precisely they wanted to say. Instead, it appears that they made every statement they could think of. Despite the evident strain of their attempts, The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood is brimming with comic invention.

LAWRENCE O'TOOLE