Saturday, February 20, 2010

THE ODD JOB (1978)

Arguably, most Americans, particularly of and around my generation, think of Great Britain as defined by either Guy Ritchie, with people running for tube trains in alternately sped-up and slow motion, or as illustrated by Monty Python’s Flying Circus
. Certainly anyone who grew up watching the bizarre and silly (and unedited) reruns on PBS held on to a stubborn belief that all Englishmen were either stiff or insane and that all English Women were men in drag (or Carol Cleveland). How dull would Renaissance Fairs be without hearing quotes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail shouted seemingly at random from all corners of the fairground? How dull would Broadway be without these sketches regurgitated onto the stage courtesy of Spamalot? How empty would our lives be without the omnipresent John Cleese of the late ‘80s (and how much less despairing would we be without the sad John Cleese of today? Of course, the same can be asked about Steve Martin…)?

Without Monty Python’s success both abroad and here in the Colonies, would we have had the fantastic and whimsical disasters of Terry Gilliam? Where would teenage girls look for fantasy romance in the pre-Twilight years had Terry Jones never teamed with Jim Henson and George Lucas for Labyrinth? And what about those other guys? Idle and Palin and… the third one… the dead one…gay guy, what’sisname? Graham Chapman. Yeah, him?

Hopefully, if you’ve gotten this far without hurling your laptop across the room (or saying “Who? What?”—in which case, go back to Mafia Wars, kid), you’ve realized that I’m trying to be satirical here. While Monty Python’s Flying Circus has passed in and out of the realm of “cool” more times than The Simpsons, depending how drunk you are at the time of the inevitable quoting of the “Dead Parrot Sketch”, the landmark show was indeed a hallmark in our more-or-less recent culture. Certainly in the adolescences of those of us who considered ourselves to be iconoclasts as teens and young adults. Often raunchy, usually satirical and often baffling (not just because it flew over the heads of those with a less-than-passable knowledge of British society but also because it was sometimes simply nonsensical), the Flying Circus was at first a delightful treat and later a rite-of-passage. But to those of us who find ourselves “past” or “over” the daffy humor because it’s somehow out of fashion now, I’ve got news for you: you’re not the first ones to feel this way. The “Pythons” got there way before we did.

Cleese in particular felt pigeon-holed by the demands of television comedy and sought greener pastures during the show’s final 1974 season. After it left the airwaves, the entire troupe scattered for solo and duo efforts but inevitably returned and regrouped for live concerts and the subsequent movies. As with any group of co-workers, the friendships ebbed and waned before reknitting. Python-ologists are well-versed in the tragedies and triumphs of some of these non-Python efforts (Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil woes; Palin’s struggles on Ripping Yarns; Cleese’s marital calamities occurring amidst shooting Fawlty Towers), but Chapman, who died in 1989, is often overlooked during these introspective retrospectives.

Closeted for most of his life and a severe alcoholic, Chapman often portrayed the stiffest of the upper-crust Brits—judges, generals, ministers, etc.—and was called one of the most “instinctually funny” members of the group by his frequent co-writer Cleese, but “never the engine” of the comedy. Most of Chapman’s contributions were delivered off the cuff, to make sketches “madder”. But of the group, he may have been the best actor, as evidenced in both Holy Grail and, perhaps the best movie in their repertoire, Life of Brian. Chapman struggled for years to get his pirate adventure/comedy Yellowbeard to the screen only to see it crash and burn at the box office. But long before that, he popped up in off-beat projects that seemed to suit him but never quite worked. One of the best-known but least-seen of these is the 1978 black comedy The Odd Job.

Like an extended Python sketch (and, indeed, it was originally filmed as an episode of Ronnie Barker’s television show, 6 Dates with Ronnie), The Odd Job has a simple premise milked for every drop of laughter and mayhem it can manage. Poor upright Arthur Harris has a row with his wife, Fiona, and she leaves him. He attempts suicide but can’t quite bring himself to see things through. A chance meeting with an “odd job man”, who has been going door-to-door looking for work, solves the problem. He hires this unnamed but amiable weirdo to assist him in his “suicide” when he least expects it. But, of course, Fiona returns and Arthur has no way of contacting his affable assassin, so he spends the rest of the film trying to avoid death until he can figure out what to do. This leads to all sorts of anarchy and black humor, not to mention a shocking but utterly appropriate ending.

But, in the midst of all of this, there is much eye-bulging and pratfalling from Chapman, a lot of fluttering from Diana Quick (as Fiona) and creepy goofiness from The Odd Job man, David Jason (who played the same character in the original television episode). While it should be screamingly funny, sophisticated eyes see what may have been fresh then as tired now (though it might have been tired then, too). Reportedly, director Peter Medak was a hasty last minute replacement for an injured director and the lack of preparation shows—lots of long takes in two-shot or master broken up with mismatched and mistimed cutaways. Lines that should be delivered in close-up play out in medium and vice-versa and at no point does the frame not appear crowded, even, inexplicably, in long shots. Chapman is noticeably impaired in several scenes but dead-on in others. There just isn’t any momentum to the comedy or the impending doom. While we should be rooting for Arthur to come out in the end, it’s tough to care when no one else seems to either. Even a brief cameo from Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien as a cheeky leather man fails to bring more than a smile.

The film’s saving grace is Jason as the Odd Job Man. In the role originally intended for Who drummer Keith Moon (who, ironically when compared to Chapman, was deemed too far gone in his own alcoholism to be reliable), Jason’s goony would-be killer is game for anything and brings his own strange energy to his scenes, mumbling his lines like a Cockney Popeye. Ultimately, it’s a disappointing little curiosity not without merit.

Released to VHS in the ‘80s, the film has never seen a legitimate DVD release in the U.S. as far as I’ve been able to discover. At first, this shouldn’t seem surprising, but with new generations of budding goof-balls rediscovering Monty Python every day, you’d think someone over at BBC-America would toss this out on the market for a quick buck. Oddly, the VHS exploited Jason’s face rather than the more recognizable Chapman’s. All of this comes as a bit of a shame when it’s considered how genuinely funny Chapman could be, and how strong an actor he was when he was sober. Taken as one of the bits of the whole, The Odd Job seems an appropriate chapter of the comedian’s life.

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