FILMS

Goofy and gangly

A lanky hero enlivens a British satire of musicals

Brian D. Johnson November 19 1990
FILMS

Goofy and gangly

A lanky hero enlivens a British satire of musicals

Brian D. Johnson November 19 1990

Goofy and gangly

FILMS

A lanky hero enlivens a British satire of musicals

THE TALL GUY Directed by Mel Smith

No one makes comedies quite like the British. Artists ranging from Peter Sellers to the Monty Python troupe have pursued the art of silliness with singular intelligence. The Tall Guy, directed by Britain’s Mel Smith, is a wonderfully daffy movie that stands up to the best tradition of English comedy. A rich satire of the London theatre world, it features an elaborate production of a West End musical based on the play The Elephant Man. Solemnly billed as “the world’s first musical about elephantiasis,” Elephant! includes earnest numbers with such lines as “He’s got the kind of face you don’t forget.” Not since The Producers, Mel Brooks’s parody of Broadway, has the stage been so effectively lampooned in a movie.

Ingeniously typecast, Jeff Goldblum plays the tall guy, Dexter, a goofy, gangly American actor in London. He is working as the abused and bruised second banana to a popular West End stage comedian named Ron Anderson (real-life comic Rowan Atkinson). A monstrous egomaniac, Anderson treats his straight man like dirt. And the rest of Dexter’s life is no better. He shares a drab flat with Carmen (Geraldine James), a nymphomaniac whose parade of lovers underscores Dexter’s own vacant love life. He also suffers from chronic hay fever. But while getting allergy shots at the hospital, he is pricked by true love in the form of a brusque nurse named Kate (Emma Thompson). She maintains a Julie Andrews sort of reserve—until she makes love with Dexter in a hilarious scene of sexual slapstick. Getting lucky on all fronts, Dexter later lands the lead role in Elephant!

As romantic comedy, The Tall Guy follows a predictable formula. But the staging of its mock musical is polished enough to make the idea almost credible—just slightly more ludicrous than The Phantom of the Opera. And the movie’s backstage satire has the sting of authenticity. In fact, Tall Guy screenwriter Richard Curtis used to serve as straight man for Atkinson, who had an act similar to his character’s. And he has worked with Atkinson and director Smith on the BBC TV hit Not the Nine O’Clock News. So often, good comedy is the product of mischievous complicity. In Goldblum, the sporting American, a team of British humorists have found the perfect fall guy.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON