UK, 2000. Rated R. 104 minutes.
Cast: Hugh Laurie, Joely Richardson,
Adrian Lester, James Purefoy, Tom Hollander, Joanna Lumley, Rachel Stirling,
Matthew MacFadyen, Rowan Atkinson, Dawn French, Emma Thompson
|Grade: C-||Review by Carlo Cavagna|
en Elton is, for those who don't know, a huge name in British comedy. Often collaborating with Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral), Elton has written or co-written some of the most popular British television shows of the last twenty years, including The Young Ones, The Ben Elton Show, and of course, the Blackadder series. He has written several best-selling novels and plays (including Popcorn), as well as material for his own and Rowan Atkinson's stand-up acts.
How disappointing, therefore, that Elton's feature directorial debut is so lackluster. Maybe Baby is about a married couple, Sam and Lucy Bell (Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson), trying to have a baby--not exactly fertile ground for the sort of mordant satire found in Blackadder. Impending parenthood is a topic that naturally leads to fuzzy, feel-good comedy, and that's exactly what Maybe Baby is. Moreover, it's partly based on Elton's own experiences. Possibly Elton dulls the edgy humor he might otherwise incorporate because he's writing too close to home.
Maybe Baby is also the sort of film that tells you how brilliant it is instead of showing you. Because Lucy is a talent agent and Sam is a screenwriter (gee, just like Elton), their experiences inevitably find their way in front of a movie camera. Lucy describes her anxieties and the strain on their marriage in her journal, Sam dumps all their experiences into his script, and supporting characters rave about how funny and touching they think the script is. But you rarely actually see any of that funny and touching stuff on the screen.
Another big problem lies in the casting. It's painful to say, because he's done marvelously funny work on Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, as well as in supporting roles in numerous films, but Hugh Laurie is a disastrous choice as a romantic comedy lead. As Laurie himself puts it, he's always been "the chap who turns up for three or four days on a film, puts on a stupid wig, and shouts." But as the lead, he has to play it straight. He doesn't have leading-man charm and rarely has the opportunity to be funny, with all too few lines like, "They want me to masturbate in a municipal facility?" He's also looking middle-aged (he's 42, but looks older). The most lasting impression Laurie makes in Maybe Baby is how startlingly closely he resembles Willem Dafoe when he turns up in a beard and stringy grown-out hair. A different Hugh would have been a better choice, the always reliable Hugh Grant.
As the female lead, Joely Richardson (The Patriot) is acceptable, but as a quick scan of her filmography suggests, she's not a comedienne. Sam and Lucy are unexciting people, and their efforts to conceive are wearisome. Of course, that's an intrinsic part of the conflict: their sex life is regimented and their marriage has lost its passion. As an added bonus, Lucy has no idea that Sam is sharing their most intimate secrets with a film crew and an entire department of the BBC--even though the heartthrob represented by her agency, Carl (James Purefoy), has been cast in the Sam role. Oh, and by the way, Carl has the hots for Lucy. You can guess where all this is going, and Maybe Baby gets there with ho-hum indifference.
It's left to the madcap supporting characters to save the film. There's quite a few of them, as you might expect from Elton. There's the new dictatorial comptroller of the BBC (Matthew MacFayden), where Sam works, who insists on "scripts that define the zeitgeist." There's the trendy Scottish director of Sam's film (Tom Hollander), who wants to make comedies about dying heroin addicts. There's the well-known Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) as Lucy's boss, uttering lines like, "Darling, you're in serious danger of turning me back into a heterosexual!" There's Rowan Atkinson doing his Mr. Bean thing as Lucy's OB/GYN, and Emma Thompson in a one-scene cameo as a flaky, new-age neo-hippy.
Their efforts relieve the tedium, but because the supporting characters are largely disconnected from one another, typically interacting with Sam and/or Lucy only, Maybe Baby often plays like a series of comic sketches. It doesn't cohere or sustain any momentum. All that being said, anyone who's been through the experience of struggling to conceive will probably find Maybe Baby to be a pleasant film. Call Maybe Baby a 'C+' if you are one of these people.
© August 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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