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blackball This comedy is so clearly aimed at British audiences that it's hard to imagine it ever travelling anywhere abroad. And while it's very funny, the cast and premise are just a bit too narrow and absurd to make sense beyond these shores. Cliff Starkey (Kaye) is a notorious bad boy in Torquay, where his prowess at lawn bowls is regularly upstaged by his own annoying antics. Then he finds out England is playing his hated rival Australia in a championship match, and he goes out for the national team. But this means he has to face off against his nemesis Ray Speight (Cromwell), who fiercely guards the sport's traditions and despises Cliff's showboating. Soon Cliff has a slick American agent (Vaughn) and becomes the most famous bowls player in Britain. Then he starts seeing Ray's daughter (Evans) and stirs up even more trouble.

There's a lively exuberance to this film that makes it enjoyable even though Kaye plays Cliff as a very unlikeable character. Not only does he look rather slimy, but his cocky arrogance makes it hard to cheer for him, even though he's often quite funny. This same adherence to tired stereotypes weakens other characters as well: Vaughn is confident and fast-talking yet a predictable bundle of nerves underneath; Evans barely registers at all since she's just the story's required love interest/character conflict. Only Cromwell manages to make the stiff and stubborn Ray slightly shaded in the film's final section; although the script doesn't have as much faith in the character as he does. Smith directs the film brightly, with an interesting mixture of provincial reality and over-the-top wackiness (such as the red pitch at the climactic match) and a not-very-original olde worlde versus young rabble-rouser plot, which is full of gaping holes. English audiences will thoroughly enjoy the cruel humour, culture-based hilarity and in-joke casting; everyone else will wonder why the film was made at all.

cert 15 themes, language, innuendo 5.Aug.03

dir Mel Smith
scr Tim Firth
with Paul Kaye, James Cromwell, Vince Vaughn, Alice Evans, Johnny Vegas, Bernard Cribbins, Imelda Staunton, Mark Little, Kenneth Cranham, Vic Reeves, Tony Slattery
release UK 5.Sep.03, US 11.Feb.05
03/UK 1h36

The player and his girl: Kaye and Evans

cromwell vaughn
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2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall