11 August 2009

The Agent

The Agent

Dir. Leslie Manning/ Written by Martin Wagner 

Ever wonder who decides what books you read? No, it’s not Richard and Judy, not even Oprah. The answer, as delivered by this spiky and clever little film, happens to invariably be the literary agent (played with gutsy vigour here by William Beck). Alexander the agent is cunning, ruthless and oblivious to taste or criticism and is out to make lots and lots of money. Which he does very well.  And like all the best con-men, we find that he is strangely likeable and charismatic in spite of ourselves …

Plunging us head first into the wheelings and dealings of the publishing world, Martin Wagner’s bitingly funny screenplay follows disgruntled author Stephen (a world-weary Stephen Kennedy) in his attempts to get his agent to justify his fee and his occupation.  Fearing that his agent is not doing enough to push his second novel, Stephen takes matters into his own hands…

The Agent started out as a play and it shows in the production. There are only a few characters (Maureen Lipman turns up in one very funny scene) and most of the film is a two-way conversation between Stephen and Alexander taking place in a non-descript office. But what the film lacks in action or variety of tone it more than makes up for in the quality of the writing and acting. The two leads are superb and absolutely convincing in their given roles. Kennedy’s edgy desperation drives the film and evokes tremendous sympathy as the man who has been knocked by life one too many times. Beck is equally good and displays great levels of wit and charm. The characters are so believable that at points the film almost feels like a documentary.

The real star on show however is the terrific writing. I doubt a more truthful film exists in relation to the literary world and if it does it could scarcely be more energetic, funny or stylish. A real gem, packed with wonderful lines and two incredible, performances. This is a challenging and thought provoking film that treats its audience with a maturity and respect, which is unfortunately all too rare in British cinema. Seek it out.

The Agent is out September 18th and is showing at the BFI Southbank. 


Mad, Sad and Bad? Nah, Just bad...

Mad, Sad & Bad - UK, 98 mins, English. Dir. Avie Luthra.

Meera Syal, Nitin Ganatra, Zubin Varla, Andrea Riseborough

Avie Luthra’s comedy drama about a British-Asian family attempts to uncover universal truths and generous laughs from the minefield of modern relationships and city living. Unfortunately, despite a good cast - including familiar faces such as Meera Syal and Eastenders’ Nitin Ganatra – the script is frail, largely laugh free, and the plot, such as it is, never gets going. The whole feel of the production is that of a TV movie, or perhaps a pilot for an uncomissioned sit-com.

A large part of the problem can be ascertained from Luthra’s notes when he states that he intended to reflect a “kind of metropolitan thirty-something selfishness…people in their mid/late thirties in mixed relationships who were so self obsessed they’re not able to look beyond their own needs.” Now, if ever there was an unnecessary and uninspiring pitch it would have to be that one. Perhaps that sounds harsh and unfair. However, it was particularly disappointing that the most potentially interesting aspect of all of this – the mixed-race relationships, possible cultural divides etc – was not examined or used in anything approaching dramatic (or comedic) fashion at all. Indeed, the fact that there are mixed-relationships in the film is unimportant and largely irrelevant. All of the characters could have been Brit-white or all could have been Brit-Asian and the script could have remained unaltered. Which is presumerably the point? But in that case why mention or show it at all?

As it is, Mad, Sad & Bad joins the already tragically large list of failed British comedic offerings. The three main storylines; Syal’s dowdy Rashmi’s quest for a decent date in order to get her secretly boozing Mum (Leena Dhingra) off  her back, Ganatra’s Atul’s  troubled relationships and writer’s block and eldest brother Hardeep’s (Zubin Varla) sex obsession and lonely home life all remain unconvincing and barely raise a smile between them.  Often the balance between comedy and drama seems well off kilter – particularly Hardeep’s attempted seduction of his brother’s girlfriend (Riseborough), which just comes across as inappropriate and seedy.

The strongest character is probably that of the matriarch Usha, whose post-death narration opens and closes the film and should be the spark that leads the characters out of their naval gazing.  She at least provides some sense of realism, as her loneliness and desire for a better life for her kids begins to tire her out.

As for the other characters, they seem forced and underdeveloped. Syal and Ganatra are both good comedy performers, but they are working with frankly sub-standard material here. A running gag about Atul struggling to write an opera about cheese is painfully unfunny and is unfortunately the abiding memory that sticks after the credits roll. Mad, Sad & Bad? No, sadly, just bad.

Mad, Sad & Bad is out now.