Thursday, 20 November 2014

BRIT PICK: The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)

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The Inbetweeners Movie (UK, 2011)
Directed by Ben Palmer
Starring Simon Bird, James Buckley, Blake Harrison, Joe Thomas

Whenever a beloved TV series makes it to the big screen, it's a reasonable assumption that the plot will involve the characters going on holiday. This has become the default model for British comedy adaptations, whose characters have outgrown the environments which originally made them famous. The results are almost universally dire, with tired fish-out-of-water gags, rehashing of old routines and much-loved character traits being altered to appease an international audience.

 
After three successful series on Channel 4 and a smattering of awards, The Inbetweeners now takes its place in the British-comedy-goes-on-holiday pantheon. But while it retreads many of the done-to-death beats of this tired little sub-genre, The Inbetweeners Movie comes off a lot better than most. It's not an unmitigated success by anyone's standards, but it will raise quite a few laughs.
 
To pass muster, a film adaptation of a TV series must pull off two different tricks. Firstly, it must transition from televisual storytelling to something more cinematic, giving us a storyline and situations which aren't bound by the episodic rubric of the small screen. And secondly, it must provide a smooth transition from the ending of the TV series to this new scenario. This applies regardless of whether the film is intended as a direct sequel to a given series, or as a retelling of the same material in a different way, as David Lynch attempted with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
 
In the first instance, The Inbetweeners Movie achieves a partial pass. The plot is structured very much like the trip-themed episodes, having a very similar opening act to 'Thorpe Park' or 'Caravan Club' from the first series. It's not hard to imagine that the party montages are what would have resulted had the series enjoyed a slightly bigger budget. Director Ben Palmer also helmed the second and third series, so a certain amount of visual continuity is no surprise.
 
While the film is structured like an episode, however, there is enough material in there to see us through the running time. The film doesn't fall into the trap of many adaptations from TV or the stage, namely needlessly increasing the number of locations to give the feeling of a bigger world for the characters. While there are more locations, they are used sparingly and the jokes that take place in them more often than not hit their mark.
 
As a transition from the TV series (the second trick I mentioned), The Inbetweeners Movie again partially succeeds. Many of the characteristics of the TV series are retained: school scenes are kept to a minimum, much of the plot revolves around alcohol and women, and a lot of it is in pretty bad taste. But Palmer and the writers do make enough accomodations to make the characters feel like film characters. Simon's relationship with Carly is given the space it needs to play out, while in the series it was often relegated to a sub-plot.
 
Despite the series being very much a 21st-century product, The Inbetweeners Movie has a curiously 1990s vibe to it. Some of the clubbing scenes are shot and structured like several similar scenes from Kevin and Perry Go Large, the spin-off from Harry Enfield & Chums featuring Enfield and Kathy Burke. Both films share a welcome sense of irony, never falling into the trap of celebrating the more troubling, chauvinistic aspects of lad culture.
  
When I reviewed National Lampoon's Animal House, I said that it was very difficult to review any kind of gross-out comedy without simply listing all its jokes and telling people that it was funny. The Inbetweeners Movie has no shame in playing to the American Pie crowd, with jokes about vomit, faeces and genitals a-plenty. Sometimes the jokes are so telegraphed that they're simply too obvious to be funny - the nasty item in the bidet being the best example. But these are the exception rather than the rule, and Palmer edits the film to leave many of the best jokes to our imagination.
 
Unlike Animal House, however, there is no real subtext to The Inbetweeners Movie which you could draw out to justify it to those who find its humour puerile and adolescent. While John Landis' film could be viewed as some kind of counter-cultural statement, with one foot in the Kennedy era and the other in the late-1970s, Palmer's is content to be about four boys getting into scrapes. But not every good comedy needs subtext, and Animal House's political points do not excuse some of its more misjudged moments.
Part of the reason that The Inbetweeners Movie works as well as it does is that it is always making the effort to distance itself from the tone or tropes that its surroundings would naturally afford. The show has always gone the extra mile to use its characters' capacity to offend in order to send up people who are like that in real life. There is no scene in the film which glamourises Jay's atrocious attitude to women, and for all the heavy drinking the boys' world is hardly an unmitigated paradise.
This realisation allows the humour of the film to raise above most of its overly conventional features. We still get the stereotypical scenes of young men getting drunk and failing miserably with the ladies, but Neil's dancing puts a nice little twist on things. The nudity is predictable but tasteful towards both the male and female characters; while the women don't have much to do plot-wise, they are not as purely objectified as they would be in a Michael Bay film. A good chunk of the humour is character-driven, with Will's awkwardness about the girl the fancies producing a lot of well-handled confusion.
 
That being said, there are aspects of the film which fall short, and as with Animal House these can be divided into structural issues and taste issues. Structually, the film begins to run out of steam as soon as the boat party happens. While a lot of the character dynamics are resolved, it all feels a little too neat, and then the film fails to provide a satisfying ending - even with the post-credit sequence involving Mr. Gilbert.
 
The taste issues arise when the film risks tipping over from its relatively intelligent vantage point into something more seedy. There's no point being a prude about a film like this, and purely from a gross-out standpoint it does what it says on the tin. But the alpha male character James is over-egged to the point where he becomes creepy, and the scenes with the child at the pool are rather uncomfortable.
 
The Inbetweeners Movie partially succeeds where many British comedy adaptations fail, making it to the big screen reasonably intact and passing the crucial test of making us laugh. Structurally it's still very much an extended TV episode, and there are moments which are either uncomfortable or just unfunny. But the film gives room for the characters to grow enough to retain our interest for an hour-and-a-half. The TV series remains superior, but this is funny enough to justify at least one viewing.

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NEXT REVIEW: The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)

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