In tribute to director and comic Mel Smith who died this week.
Ex-pat American Dexter King (Jurassic Park and The Fly‘s Jeff Goldblum) spends five years in London as ‘the tall guy’ playing straight man to obnoxious comedian Ron Anderson (Blackadder, Mr Bean and Johnny English: Rowan Atkinson).
Coinciding with his mid-life crisis as a 40-year old second-rate side kick and a love-life in tatters, Dexter meets nurse Kate Lemon (Emma Thompson of Sense and Sensibility) and, after getting fired, an audition for the new RSC musical about the Elephan Man: Elephant!
Goldblum’s laconic American charm and sardonic delivery is put to excellent use fronting Richard Curtis’ (Love Actually, Four Weddings’ and, of course, Blackadder) first movie script. With Mel Smith’s intelligent direction, this is an alternative and very British take on a Woody Allen rom-com.
With Goldblum as the central character, we follow this Camden Town Boy (the working title) through a modern, fish-out-of-water comedy of manners, full of slapstick, and surreal, fantasy, interior monologue.
There are nods to silent clowns, classic sketch shows, Ealing comedy, and the Americana of Jerry Lewis comedies.
Every cameo is a quintessentially British eccentric, from the barking mad doctor to the ‘luvvies’ at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Dexter’s bohemian (that’s to say nymphomaniac) landlady Carmen (Geraldine James).
In all honesty you may find the beginning a little too British, quirky, and underwhelming. Being a Curtis script, it sparkles with too-clever one-liners that jolt out of context (a bit like an American sit-com, then), but it’s an oddly disjointed affair with gangly, stick-insect Goldblum twitching with existential angst.
Goldblum and Thompson’s outrageous afternoon tryst manages to warm things up, though. When we get to what must be the worst fictional musical since Springtime for Hitler (The Producers) that things really take off.
The most ill-concieved bio-musical of John Merrick sees the non-singing, non-dancing Dexter cast in the lead of Elephant! Philip Pope’s comic songs are a delight: catch the ballad He’s Packing His Trunk and finale An Angel with Big Ears; both I and my house mate fell off the sofa laughing at the chorus line of tap-dancing elephants.
Of course, Dexter falls for the advances of his leading lady (Kim Thomson) and spends the final third of the movie in a desperate race across London to regain his lost love, nurse Kate (shades of Love Actually), stealing Ron Anderson’s Maserati dressed as the Elephant Man; which gets him a police escort to the hospital.
Structurally The Tall Guy is a barrel of bobbing apples; a series of loosely bound sketches that bump and jolt against each other. We’re not in any reality you’d recognise, but then Curtis and Smith graduated from sketch comedy (Not the Nine O’Clock News, Alas Smith and Jones). The climactic hospital sequence is an Airplane-style parody of rom-com endings, amid the victims of a road crash, punctuated by the real band Madness singing their hit, It Must Be Love.
I’d like to tell you that it’s original, profound, and painterly, but it’s a rag-bag assortment of sketches threaded along a scatter-gun plot. It’s a cheap, British film, with Goldblum the most expensive thing in it.
It is also put together with joy and exuberance. It is VERY funny and I love it. RC
The Tall Guy (1989)
Director: Mel Smith
Writer: Richard Curtis
Running time: 1 hr. 32 min.
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson, Anna Massey, Kim Thomson, Emil Wolk, Geraldine James