Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?

Father and son: Harold (Courtenay) and Vince (Legge) do a bit of washing up after Christmas dinner.
dir Pete Hewitt scr Ben Steiner
with Tom Courtenay, Michael Legge, Laura Fraser, Stephen Fry, Lulu, David Thewlis, Charlie Hunnam, Matthew Rhys, Charlotte Roberts, Amanda Root, James Corden, Rosemary Loach, Mark Williams
October 99/UK 3 out of 5 stars
Review by Rich Cline
Bright and very funny, Whatever Happened to Harold Smith? is a coming-of-age comedy set in late-70s Sheffield. Yes, there's a gimmick here, but it's relatively underplayed to centre on the more realistic, human story of a young man trying to make sense of the world around him.

At 18, Vince Smith (Legge) is just starting out his career as a legal clerk for a strict boss (Thewlis). He swiftly develops a paralysing crush on his coworker Joanna (Fraser), who has a secret life as a punk chick, in contrast to Vince's disco-dancer. Back home, Vince's big brother (Rhys) is trying to make it as a smooth-guy magician, while their dad Harold (Courtenay) is the one with real magical powers. He has suppressed this "gift" since childhood, but current events--including his nymphomaniac wife (Lulu)--bring it out again, much to the amazement of the local police, British society and an expert shrink (Fry) who's also Joanna's father. Meanwhile, Vince is watching his dad for inspiration as he tries to sort out his life.

The script is both warmhearted and sharply funny as it dissects human behaviour on various levels, while director Hewitt (The Borrowers) piles on hilarious 70s details from the colourful costumes and sets (nicely mirrored in the colourful characters) to the hit-parade soundtrack. The cast is excellent, with Fry stealing the show as a woolly-minded liberal who continually approaches situations with jaw-dropping pragmatism; the birds-and-bees chat with his bratty younger daughter (Roberts) is unforgettable. Some of the disco versus punk stuff is a bit forced, and the romance drags on and never quite works. But the story is full of unexpected little scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny ... and wonderfully telling too.

[15--themes, language] 2.Dec.99
UK release 10.Mar.00; US release 8.Jun.01

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"My friend and I were the only ones in the cinema when we went to see this. This turned out quite well for us, as it meant we were able to laugh loudly without fear of embarrasment. This was very funny, very nostalgic and very clever, with a quirky plot that blended a coming-of-age theme with supernatural powers. It was rich with little reminders of life in the late seventies (all those flared suits, kipper ties and that extraordinary brown and orange office!), but there was more to it that period detail. The characters were all strong, and all had something to contribute to the overall plot; Stephen Fry was particularly good. But Courtenay as Harold Smith stole the show with his quiet yet determined way of doing the right thing." --Jo C, West Sussex

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1999 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall