In 1980, Richard Curtis toured with Rowan Atkinson, acting as his straight man in a series of revue sketches. His experiences formed the basis of his first film script, The Tall Guy, which is the story of a straight man in thrall to a monstrous, egomaniacal rubber faced comic called Ron Anderson. All similarities to persons living or dead are, doubtless, unintentional but since the aforementioned comic is portrayed by Rowan Atkinson, it’s hard not to detect a sense of the straight man getting the last laugh. Luckily, this is far from being a one-joke movie since it’s one of the most deliciously spaced-out romantic comedies ever made in Britain with performances from Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson which are simply delightful.
Jeff Goldblum, in one of the few really worthy roles he’s been given since his triumph in The Fly, plays the ‘tall guy’ of the title, Dexter King, whose misery at having spent six years as straight man to the nastiest comic in London is equalled only by his disastrous love life and his chronic hayfever. When this threatens to get him sacked, he goes to the hospital to seek a cure and immediately falls madly in love with a nurse, played by a vaguely pre-luvvie Emma Thompson. His attempts to chat her up fail miserably - upon discovering that her name is Kate Lemon, he says “It could have been worse, could have been Hitler .. or Tampon...” - and his pretence that he needs lots of injections to go to Morocco - “It’s where Joe Orton went to pick up little boys” - doesn’t cut a single shard of ice. But, despite himself, he manages to hook up with her and, following a spectacularly destructive afternoon of sex in her apartment, she moves in with him. Dexter, for whom life usually has at least one nasty surprise waiting, loses his job with the Rubber Faced genius, but manages to get the plum role in an RSC musical version of “The Elephant Man”, called, appropriately enough, “Elephant !”.
The first half of this comedy is a total delight. It’s not so much the jokes, good as they are, or the comic set-pieces as the inspired performances. Jeff Goldblum’s quality of being several weeks behind everyone else in a scene has rarely been better used than it is here, and his charm is allowed to dominate the proceedings. He has the comic ability to deliver one-liners without stamping on them; he doesn’t so much throw the lines away as absent-mindedly drop them. Everything he does is a little odd and, cumulatively, endearing, whether it’s his Flintstone’s impressions while cycling through a tunnel or his botched attempts at devastating comebacks; his response to being sacked by Ron for example, “I hope your children have very small dicks. And that includes the girls.” Sometimes it’s simply his appearance, hair askew and inhabiting baggy Superman pyjamas with all the natural grace of a three year old on a pogo stick. It’s inspired, therefore, for him to be matched with Emma Thompson, who makes Kate devastatingly sexy simply by being permanently elsewhere. From her first entrance, wheeling a geriatric and pretending to be a train, she creates a believable person from very little and when you find out that her favourite colours are green and orange, the immediate thought is, how could they be anything else ? She has a great way with a comic line too, especially when she brings all her authority to bear on “You forfeited the right to reasonable medical attention when you made the decision to put a vacuum cleaner pipe up your bottom”. The pair are so well cast that the obvious slapstick of the virtually apocalyptic sex scene - similar to the one played for real in Basic Instinct but more erotic - seems a natural outgrowth of the characters rather than an arbitrary comic set-piece.
The first half also benefits from an array of good supporting performances. Rowan Atkinson’s cruel precision is very well used and he doesn’t play for laughs. When he tells Dexter that he’s “performing like five kinds of shit tonight”, it’s rather uncomfortable because Anderson is such a complete louse. Atkinson refuses to soften the character and he remains totally foul to the end, with the details perfectly observed from the fake-humility to the thudding name dropping at the first night party. On a broader note, Emil Wolk is fun as Charlie, the accident prone stagehand who gets pushed on in Dexter’s place when circumstances demand it, and Geraldine James gets some good laughs as Dexter’s calmly nymphomaniacal flatmate. Best of all, in a small gem of a performance, Hugh Thomas is blissfully deranged as a psychiatrist who is delighted to get the chance of practising his injection techniques on Dexter’s arm.
However, and a little surprisingly, the second half manages to top the first in two ways. Firstly, in “Elephant !”, an incredibly good pastiche of the worst excesses of West End musicals. From the opening swamp of dry ice, to the idiotic lyrics - a love song plaintively entitled “He’s Packing His Trunk” - and the final arm-lifting chorus, it’s a perfectly observed bit of parody and, like all good parody, all too believable. Secondly, and more unusually, in the weird poetry which bursts out unexpectedly in some of the images and dialogue. Dexter has the appalling taste to cheat on Kate with an ingenue - slyly played by Kym Thomson - and, when she’s left him, he sits on a park bench with Charlie and the local blind vagrant and bemoans his fate. The camera rotates to view them sitting staring out at an autumnal London and, for a moment, the film transcends comedy and becomes oddly moving. Equally touching is the flipped-out romanticism of the ending - where the reconciliation takes place over the chest of an obstreporous heart attack victim - which culminates in a lovely slow-motion spin around the couple. For these moments, Mel Smith’s direction is more than merely efficient and the characters achieve a real connection with the audience. Richard Curtis’s dialogue rises to the occasion too, with several memorable lines. My personal favourite is the very typical “Well that’s it, I’m gonna spend the rest of my life pretending to be an elephant and sharing my bed with a small squeaky pig” but I’d also have to quote the genuinely profound and completely truthful “Nothing fights despair so effectively as getting totally pissed”.
Incidental pleasures abound. There’s a marvellously nostalgic view of late eighties London - although those of us who have walked across Cambridge Circus more times than can be counted might note that “Les Miserables” is still there - and cameos by the likes of Melvyn Bragg and a very young-looking Jonathan Ross, with a hairstyle even more iconoclastic than the one he’s currently sporting. Sharp eyes will also spot Richard Curtis, Angus Deayton and Jason Isaacs. Along with the musical parody, there’s a brief but spot-on Steven Berkoff skit, and a synthesiser score from Peter Brewis which is pure-1980s. The only serious misjudgement is the central montage set to “It Must Be Love” by Madness, which includes characters singing at us and an appearance from Suggs himself. It’s a bit embarrassing and not especially necessary, making points which we could gather for ourselves more quickly and showcasing a song which was over familiar then and is now surely ready for eternal rest.
The Tall Guy is a little thing, slender and a bit fragile and in comparison to Curtis’s later work for the cinema it may look, to some, more like an extended TV sketch. But that would be completely unfair. I think this remains the best film script he has yet written because it so skillfully eschews sentimentality and manages to remain unexpected and delightful, resolving in a brisk 90 minutes. In his subsequent screenplays, the comic energy is dissipated by maudlin plotting which comes across as asking the audience to pay the price of solemnity for the laughs they’ve already enjoyed. Is there a worse, more horribly misjudged scene in British comedy than the moment in Four Weddings and a Funeral where John Hannah quotes W.H.Auden ? In The Tall Guy, the emotion is constantly balanced by comic energe and, best of all, in Dexter and Kate, he creates a partnership of equals, two charmingly bizarre people who obviously belong together and who are as sympathetic as they are strange.
Another day, another MGM review disc. As usual, the DVD contains the film, the trailer and, er, that’s it. It would have been nice to have a commentary from Mel Smith or Richard Curtis, or some of the behind the scenes footage which abounded on film review shows back in 1989. I’d also have loved to see the “Saturday Night At The Movies” review by Tony Slattery where he admitted that he was a little biased because he’d auditioned for the part of Dexter and been rejected.
The film is presented in the original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. A comparison with the fullscreen video release suggests that it was made fullscreen and then matted for cinema release, but this presentation is entirely acceptable. It’s not a bad transfer overall. There is some print damage in evidence - quite a bit of white speckling and some scratches - but the colours are reasonably full and the picture is sharp and clear. There are instances of artifacting throughout but only a small amount of grain visible.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 2.0, recreating the original Dolby Stereo recording. It’s uneventful for the most part but the music expands across the front channels and there are directional sound effects throughout.
The trailer is included and it gives away some good jokes so don’t watch it before you’ve seen the film. There are 16 chapter stops.
There isn’t much to say about the DVD but the film is very good indeed and certainly ripe for rediscovery in the light of Richard Curtis’s later work. It seemed a very promising debut for Mel Smith at the time but he has not done anything as good since, despite the huge box office success of Bean. If you like romantic comedy and quirky humour, this should be right up your alley. The disc is acceptable, if basic, and worth considering if you can get it at an acceptable price.
In 1980, Richard Curtis toured with Rowan Atkinson, acting as his straight man in a series of revue ...