Submarine (2010)

19 Jul

Anyone familiar with cult British comedy will be aware of Richard Ayoade; he has made his name as a player in such shows as ‘The Mighty Boosh’, ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, ‘Man to Man with Dean Learner’ and ‘The I.T. Crowd’, bringing his gawky charm and E.L. Wisty-esque otherworldliness to a succession of oddballs and outsiders. But TV comedy stars must always enter into the film world with great trepidation, as what makes them so effective in the thirty-minute format often doesn’t translate to the big screen – as Mitchell and Webb’s ‘Magicians’ (2007) is a disappointing testament to. Ayoade wisely opted to stay behind the camera for ‘Submarine’, amassing an impressive cast for this adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s coming-of-age novel.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a bright but gauche teen living in Swansea in the 1980s. Struggling to fit in at school, he bullies his fellow students in an attempt to impress Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a callous, manipulative classmate who takes pleasure in toying with his emotions, but with whom he is determined to lose his virginity. Oliver’s home life is disrupted when Glen (Paddy Considine), the first love of his mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), moves in next door, throwing the failings of her marriage into sharp relief. Oliver does his best to rouse his depressive intellectual father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), and sabotage Glen’s attempts to woo Jill, becoming a go-between for his emotionally stunted parents.

‘Submarine’ makes for frustrating viewing, with Ayoade falling prey to First-Time Director’s Syndrome. The film is burdened by its influences – chiefly Wes Anderson – and struggles to strike the delicate balance of laughs and narrative progression that is crucial to any film comedy’s success. There is a sense that Ayoade is trying way too hard to prove his directorial chops, throwing into the mix every technique at his disposal – slow motion, multiple angles, numerous cuts, freeze frames, split screens, Scorsese-esque ‘Super 8’ segments and a constantly moving camera. It all becomes wearing and has the effect of detracting from the story. Alex Turner throws out a few subpar Arctic Monkeys offcuts, his star cache no doubt helping to market the film in the US.

On the plus side, ‘Submarine’s’ humour is more bittersweet then laugh-out-loud, its sophisticated tone a welcome departure from the crass ‘sex wager’ formula that proliferates the teen comedy genre. The script succeeds in depicting the causal cruelty and mob mentality of the playground; one of its most striking themes is how intellectual curiosity can bring with it a profound sense of insignificance, detailing the travails of the smart. There is a grim authenticity to the depiction of Oliver’s home life: a passive-aggressive minefield where his ultra-vigilant mother and over-analytical father quietly rue their failures and pile their neuroses onto his shoulders. All of which is helped in no small part by Erik Wilson’s downbeat photography, its washed-out palette conveying a wintery chill, and Roberts’ wry narration, which perfectly replicates the inner monologue of a teenage aesthete struggling to come to terms with sexual awakening and domestic upheaval.

A great ensemble cast strives manfully to overcome the glib, comic cadence of the dialogue: Taylor and Hawkins play the saturnine marine biologist and frustrated actress with typical élan, Roberts and Paige have genuine chemistry, Considine provides an injection of broad humour as a leather-clad ‘mystic’ sporting a luxurious mullet, and executive producer Ben Stiller makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. But, alas, their efforts are undermined by Ayoade’s desire to ape the hyper-stylized, self-aware idioms of US indie cinema. One cannot escape the feeling that, in striving to deliver the desired look, the film loses some of its heart, the end result feeling like a hipster reimagining of ‘Gregory’s Girl’ (1981). All of which is a tremendous shame, as Ayoade clearly has talent as a director; if he can calm down and rein in some of his stylistic excesses, his next project could be something special.

That luxurious mullet.

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